Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. USA, 2016. Fairview Entertainment, Moving Picture Company, Walt Disney Pictures. Screenplay by Justin Marks, based on the book by Rudyard Kipling. Cinematography by Bill Pope. Produced by Jon Favreau, Brigham Taylor. Music by John Debney. Production Design by Christopher Glass. Costume Design by Laura Jean Shannon. Film Editing by Mark Livolsi. Academy Awards 2016. Las Vegas Film Critics Awards 2016. Phoenix Film Critics Awards 2016.
Rudyard Kipling’s tales of a boy raised by wolves have been filmed many times, most famously known as the last Disney animated feature supervised by Walt himself. Saying that this is a live-action version of the cartoon is a sketchy prospect, given that bright young Neel Sethi, who is committed and appealing even if he isn’t very skilled, is the only real element in a film that is entirely digitally created. Beautiful backdrops and a wide array of impressively rendered animals who speak on screen with the voices of a famous cast backing them up fill the eye, while a choppy screenplay keeps you amused at times and bored at others. In this version, young Mowgli feels himself ostracized from his pack by the fact that his technological skills (he can collect water with a bucket) is seen as inappropriate for wolvish ways. He is encouraged to leave his family and make his way to the “man village”, but his journey is hampered by the fact that a vengeful tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba, whose casting is so obvious as to be mundane) is constantly looking to do him in. His old friend Bagheera (a much less predictable Ben Kingsley) and new buddy Baloo (Bill Murray, also an unimaginative choice) are on hand to keep him company, because this is a film for the young and young at heart, while a very imposing sequence involving a giant orangutan (Christopher Walken) will send chills into the same viewers. A dark ending involving ecological destruction muddies up the film’s already unclearmessage (humans should exist in nature but are rejected for good reason), while the animation is a new breakthrough in what can be achieved on the screen. There’s nothing you can take away from it as far as technology goes, but the Sabu version from 1942 is a hell of a lot more fun even if it has white people in offensive brown makeup. Here the intentions are all convoluted, songs from the cartoon version awkwardly inserted against a dramatic plot, and an emphasis on Kipling’s sinister realism clashing with the flights of fancy (there are no orangutans in India) that are borrowed from Disney’s original. It’s not in any way a mess, and sequences like Scarlett Johansson‘s seductive Kaa are standouts, but it takes itself far too seriously and the sequel-baiting ending is annoying (the fact that Walt included more sex than Jon Favreau does is awe-inspiring in itself).