Saturday 23 April 2016

Swingers: "The Jungle Book"

In the half-century since their canonical animated version, Disney have continually returned to Mr. Kipling's best-known narrative, whether to retain a copyright or see if it might enchant youngsters anew: one senses it has become as sacred a text to the company as, say, the Holy Bible was to Cecil B. DeMille. If Stephen Sommers' live-action take from the early 1990s has now largely been forgotten about, its fate may be preferable to that of the generally reviled The Jungle Book 2, an animated 2003 product born of the Mouse House's millennial lowpoint. Jon Favreau's new live-action adaptation The Jungle Book, on the other hand, displays the bounteous commercial confidence you'd expect from a post-Frozen proposition: it arrives with plentiful 3D-appointed, IMAX-ready spectacle (lush forestscapes, rushing waterfalls, mudfalls, tree climbing) and a full menagerie of photorealistic CG animals who presumably took far longer in the rendering than their hand-drawn predecessors.

With the very savvy, very businesslike Favreau - who pulled in a cool $620m worldwide on Iron Man 2 - at the helm, all this was perhaps a given: the executives can return to the massage table knowing they've got what they presumably set aside a whole lot of money for. There are, though, bigger questions to be asked of it. Like: does this smoothly engineered product have much in the way of charm to go with its polish? And, perhaps most crucially for anyone not overly engaged by the business of weekend box-office figures: will we all still be watching it in fifty years' time? In these matters, I think, the Favreau version is walking barefoot on altogether rockier ground. Take our entry point into this universe, the film's one flesh-and-blood representative Neal Sethi: a very Californian Mowgli, he speaks all his lines as though he were auditioning to play one of Tim Allen's sons on Home Improvement. (You'll look for signs of the enfant sauvage in vain; even the animated Mowgli was seen to wrinkle his nose and his forehead from time to time.)

As with its hero, so with the film, which purges any real wildness from the frame, and keeps offering up bizarre mismatches between voices and bodies. George Sanders brought experience and worldliness to the task of voicing Shere Khan in the original animation; the wildly overhyped Idris Elba, by contrast, sounds like a wannabe DJ dropping by on his way to the next Hoxton garage night. Scarlett Johansson's Kaa exists as no more than a single, breathy note: behind-the-scenes footage will surely show Favreau directing her as he gazed upon her changing clothes while playing Tony Stark's chauffeur in the Iron Man sequel. And while, yes, there's a degree of wit in having the Christopher Walken-voiced King Louie emerge from his mountain lair as though he were Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, recruiting Bill Murray to voice Baloo feels an all too obvious and pandering choice, ten years after Peak Murray. (The actor's lazy irony has always needed someone or something to work or rub against to be funny; simply indulge it, as Favreau does here, and you end up with A Very Murray Christmas, and truly nobody deserves another one of those.)

Of course, a modern multinational megatainment has to get saleable names onto the poster, but in this case it makes for a jolting experience; you're marvelling at the effects or hearing the voice work, never quite engaging with the characters or narrative. This is a major problem for a film with an already episodic narrative, nudging its hero towards maturity: you're just settling into it, only for some element to throw you out. In the '67 version, the songs helped to cultivate a vibe upon which viewers might be carried, but that film was close enough to the movie musical boom to know how a decent tune could function as an expression of character, and not merely the cue for another setpiece: folding, among others, the noted bandleader Louis Prima into its foliage, it was - along with the subsequent The Aristocats - perhaps the closest the uptight Disney squares, hunched over their drawing boards, ever got to the looseness of jazz.

Favreau's version slashes the songbook in favour of more Spectacle, and presents those few numbers that have survived the test-screening process as half-hearted, semi-embarrassed throwbacks. True, you get to hear Murray sing "Bare Necessities" and Walken do "I Wanna Be Like You", but the music is as deadeningly ironised as any Meghan Trainor cover, and orchestrated after the manner of the Robbie Williams swing album. Deprived of their buoying marching song, meanwhile, this jungle's elephants are reduced to the standing of forlorn screensavers. All of this points to what Favreau surely pitched his Jungle Book as: another goddamned reboot, as though Kipling had written no more than an origin story, and Mowgli were no more than a Peter Parker-in-waiting, awaiting the opportunity to leap from branch to branch across an IMAX screen. The result has scale and sweep, undeniably, but too little in the way of heart, soul or genuine poetry - and, as the lady so nearly said, any Jungle Book don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

The Jungle Book is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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