My primary concern when it comes to "The Jungle Book," Disney's latest live-action presentation of a previously animated success, is with its shortage of spirit, or to be more specific, its cookie-cutter feel. Sure, it is visually stunning and a brilliant illustration of eye candy in its finest form, and, yes, it almost certainly follows the events of the original animated classic and Rudyard Kipling's novel to a T (sans two notable subplots involving an adolescent elephant and what can be deemed a "Beatles" inspired vulture trio—although they make a reinvented appearance, their value is virtually nonexistent); nevertheless, I couldn't help but see the film for what it really is: a CGI-injected and ineffectually infused product with an aura that cannot outwit its artificiality. It has many more miscalculations than it does musings, and this "Jungle Book," for lack of a better description, is quite jejune.
Director Jon Favreau ("Elf," "Iron Man," and "Cowboys & Aliens") knows how to produce a savvy and engaging picture, but that is plainly not the issue here. In this instance, I would say that the film's shortcomings can be directly ascribed to a script that is not only subpar, but it is truly brimming with an exorbitant amount of inexperience. I mean, the most important aspect of this coming-of-age tale (that being, Mowgli's acceptance of humanity) is heedlessly thrown to the wind; the tone of the picture can never find its footing, as many dark and dreary moments are offset by a handful of musical numbers that do more harm than good; and, much to my dismay, the character of Mowgli seems to have lost every bit of his rambunctiousness. (This is not to mention several unflattering examples of low-brow humor that include the ever-scintillating pee joke and a sexual jest that is clearly on the wrong side of excessive.) As much as I would like to applaud this attempt to arouse a sense of wonder, I will not forgive such failings.
There is no doubt about it: "The Jungle Book" is a visual extravaganza built to spellbind audiences with its staggering use of computer-generated imagery and photorealistic rendering, and, in turn, this produces an environment that is nothing short of sensational. Our animal counterparts even have this sense of magic about them as they become larger than life, physically speaking, and as they commit to dialogue that is as genuine as it is conceivable. And yet, what are we actually commending here? Although this film obviously takes pride in its appearance, there is nothing new or innovative about its visual execution, and I have half a mind to believe that an on-location filming session would have given rise to many of the same results. (I'm sure that the studio was chosen for its convenience and for its undemanding nature, but practicability is not always an avenue for success.)
Surprisingly, even the casting choices come off as clumsy to some degree. It is true that Idris Elba is unquestionably menacing as the antagonistical Shere Khan, and Scarlett Johansson is explicitly the best of the bunch. (Although ephemeral, Johansson's seductive and sultry rendition of Kaa tends to evoke John Milton's serpent time and again.) With that being said, however, Ben Kingsley and Bill Murray (who voice the lovable personas of Bagheera and Baloo, respectively) seem to be just running through the motions, and Christopher Walken's King Louie, although cinematically treated in the same light as Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz from the timeless "Apocalypse Now," is downright laughable. (Walken's Brooklyn accent is distracting and entirely unwarranted here.) As for the leading, tangible star and solo live performer in Neel Sethi, I've never seen a more unconvincing performance from a child actor before. "Jungle Book" is Sethi's first Hollywood role to date, and with all due respect, it was hard not to notice. (In retrospect, I believe it was his passive approach to the character that marred an already monotonous outing.) Of course, as regrettable as it may be, Sethi's inadequacies could ultimately be a ramification of the production's prosaic mentality.
And this is the problem with the movie industry today. If I've said it once, well, I've said it a thousand times. It's all become flat out spectacle, so to speak, with little to no depth. Audiences (and many of my contemporaries for that matter) will surely admire the film's more immersive moments; as troublesome as that fact is, I'm more concerned about the individual's capacity to sit down and view a picture devoid of such conventions. Naturally, I've praised the use of special effects in the past, and I'm positive that I will do so in the future. Yet, in how many ways can one express admiration for the 3D platform before it ineluctably becomes nettlesome? (The sense of visual depth that it provides is nothing more than a commonplace illusion, and if you were to ask me, I'd consider it a cheap trick.)
"The Jungle Book" is by no means a bad film. It's just the phrase "Prepare to be wowed" never came to mind, and to say that the picture captured that "Old Hollywood" feel would simply be a harebrained sentiment. Now, Favreau is on record stating that his intention was to transport audiences to a magical realm comparable to that of James Cameron's "Avatar," and this, in my estimation, was the biggest error of judgment. For, "Avatar" had a fictional ambiance like no other, and the setting of "The Jungle Book" is wholly observable in our nonfictional reality. I'm afraid that Favreau may have forgotten just how beautiful existing Mother Nature can be.