Okay, let me just start by saying that I didn’t hate this new live-action version of The Jungle Book (can you call a movie that’s 90 percent computer animation live-action?). I didn’t hate it at all. But from the moment the cameras opened up on the luscious jungle scenes, I couldn’t stop asking: Why did they make this movie?
I loved the original Jungle Book: truly, madly, deeply. Do you know why I loved it? Because I was 7. At 7, I loved seeing a little gangly brown boy run through the forest. At 7, I loved to see lazy bears sing about bare necessities. At 7, I couldn’t understand how racist the King Louie character was. At 7, I had no way of knowing what an asshole Rudyard Kipling was. At 7, The Jungle Book was perfect. It was fun and funny and just scary enough.
The Jungle Book made in 1967 didn’t need an update. Traditionally animated films are rarely helped by upgrades in technology. Unless you want to teach young kids about the horrors of global warming and the destruction of natural habitats—a jungle is a jungle. Nothing about the original was out of date—well, except for King Louie, but he alone is not a good enough reason to remake an entire movie.
While the cast of the new Jungle Book is impressive—Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, and more—the fact that they are voicing animals and not actually displaying their award-winning acting chops on-screen really dampens that effect. The least impressive thing about Scarlett Johansson is her voice. She takes all the freakiness of a murderously hypnotic singsong python (Kaa) and turns it into the drone of a bored, slightly lispy college intern. Who goes to a movie to see Scarlett Johansson voice a snake? It’s not even a sexy snake. The snake doesn’t know any martial arts. I’m pretty sure that anybody could have voiced the always dull character of Raksha as unremarkably as Lupita Nyong’o did. You won’t even care that Giancarlo Esposito is in this film—and that should be a crime.
The only characters that truly benefit from the star power are those voiced by actors known for their voice work. Idris Elba is truly menacing as Shere Khan, and Christopher Walken is a much needed, nonracist update for King Louie. The original Jungle Book, with voices picked to animate characters instead of hoping that star power will cross over into animal form, was far better at bringing life to its old-school animation characters than this movie does with its millions in special effects.
I got the feeling while watching the movie that director Jon Favreau wasn’t quite sure what to do with this film, either. Visually, it’s gorgeous and engaging, so it has the opportunity to really draw the viewer into the wild and dangerous jungle. Many parts of the movie seem to embrace this vibe—Shere Khan is far more believably terrifying than in the original, and his power over the jungle feels more real and ruthless. He not only physically terrifies the rest of the animals, but he delights in mentally torturing them as well—perching himself atop the wolf pack’s den and menacingly playing with the wolf cubs while he demands that Mowgli be brought to him so that he can kill him. But, likely in order not to scare all the children in the audience, these scenes are limited, and that dark feeling of threat is out of balance with Favreau’s attempts to not leave behind the singing monkeys that we all loved in the original.
As a new darker, scarier adult Jungle Book, this movie could have done quite well. Even the new King Louie, in his less minstrely form, seems to struggle to find the balance between how truly terrifying a volatile and power-hungry giant monkey king voiced by Christopher Walken really would be and the need to work that one song in. When Christopher Walken did start singing “I want to be like you-ooh-ooh,” it was scary, but not in a good way. Christopher Walken should start singing in a movie only if that movie is about to go to a very dark and bloody place. But this is Disney, so it was just weird.
But all of this would have been just fine if I’d never seen the original Jungle Book. Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, is believable as a kid—and that’s all I ask for of child actors. The movie is visually impressive. But so are most television commercials these days. Sometimes the movie is scary, and very occasionally it’s funny. You likely won’t fall asleep. But I can’t think of anything the new version of The Jungle Book does better than the original animated version—and if you can’t do it better, why even bother? If you are going to be mediocre, at least be original about it.