21 April 2016

The Jungle Book review

There are an awful lot of people who insist that some films must be seen in the cinema in order to really appreciate them. Now, I love going to the cinema as much as anybody (and significantly more than most), and I see as many films on the big screen as I can - but I'm yet to see a film that has been described as a "cinema experience" that has also been just a genuinely good film. I mean, think back to films such as Avatar or Gravity - they're inarguably visually stunning and technologically impressive, but can you really say with any kind of certainty that either of them are genuinely good films? I think the lack of impression that either have actually made on pop culture at large answers that question.

That being said, The Jungle Book is probably the closest we've gotten to a film sold as a "cinema experience" that is also legitimately worth seeing as just a good movie. Predominantly inspired by the 1967 animated version, this live-action (can a film that is 99% CGI really be considered live-action?) remake follows Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves, as he travels through the jungle to live safely in a human village thanks to the threats of Shere Khan, a tiger who wants him dead.

In truth, if you like the 1967 version of The Jungle Book you are almost certainly going to enjoy this version too. It's as faithful an adaptation as can be expected from a film that is trying to translate from animation into live-action, and even if it doesn't match up beat for beat (some parts have been removed in favour of adding in aspects from the original book) it is, for the most part, the same film - with all the strengths and weaknesses that entails.

Like it or not, traditional animation can get away with a level of whimsy and lack of focus that other forms of film cannot, and this latest version of The Jungle Book may be the perfect example of that. Whereas the original film's "and then this happened" style of storytelling comes off as charmingly quaint, it doesn't quite work in the same way here - instead, parts of The Jungle Book feel almost directionless, jumping from scene to scene in order to match the original film rather than for reasons rooted in storytelling. And this makes the film feel wildly inconsistent when it comes to tone, again something that can work just fine in the more obviously fantastical world of traditional animation - but The Jungle Book's emphasis on the realism of the animals and the world it is set in only highlights how poorly structured it is.

Additionally, it seems safe to say that Mowgli's character arc is... muddled, at best. He's a character living in the jungle but someone who belongs in a village, and the film can't decide if it wants him to embrace his humanity or reject it in favour of living in the jungle. The result is a finale that tries to do both, having Mowgli symbolically reject civilisation before immediately having him turn around and rely on that symbol of civilisation to survive - and when I say immediately I mean literally within the same scene, the film playing them both like powerful, character defining moments.

But none of this is to say that you won't find a lot to enjoy within The Jungle Book - I certainly did, in spite of it's flaws. Although the film struggles to tie it's individual scenes together in a way that makes it feel like a cohesive whole, there is no denying that these scenes work more often than they don't, whether that be a tense chase sequence or an emotional goodbye or a light musical number. And yes, they do actually do (some of) the songs from the animated version - and I'd argue that hearing Christopher Walken sing "I Wanna Be Like You" is worth the price of admission alone.

And it is, of course, incredibly good-looking for a film shot entirely on green screen. It's hard to believe that this wasn't filmed at least partially in a real jungle with real animals thanks to how believable everything looks throughout - the only thing stopping you from fully believing that these are real animals is the fact that they can talk and have recognisable human expressions from time to time, and even then it's touch-and-go.

All of which means that The Jungle Book is the best film sold as a "cinema experience" to date, as I said earlier. It may not fit together all that well and it's surprisingly clunky in places, but it's still a fun, engaging and at times genuinely exciting movie with a great cast that doesn't do a disservice to the much beloved original - and really, that's all it needed to be.

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