By James Hancock April 15th, 2016
I always find it hard to determine if a movie is good “family friendly” entertainment without coming across like a cynic or worse an authoritarian who thinks he knows what families should be seeing. I can speak on my behalf easily enough, but there is something inherently dishonest about reviewing a movie from a point of view that may or may not be my mine and making judgements about what movies are appropriate or inappropriate for families. My father took me to see John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1982) at age 5 and I loved it so that’s my idea of quality family entertainment. So I think I’ll just write an honest review and safely assume that families heading to the cinema this weekend are likely going to see this movie anyway no matter what people write about it online. For my part, I thought The Jungle Book was a very solid movie, arguably the best of Jon Favreau’s directorial career. I’ve never read Rudyard Kipling’s original novel from 1894, but I saw the 1967 Disney animated film which seems to have laid the groundwork for most of this interpretation of the material. Two of the notable tunes from that earlier film, “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be like You”, made it into this version and like that cartoon, the story stars a variety of anthropomorphic characters we all know and love like Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray) and Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley). From a technical standpoint, the movie is a jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring spectacle. My one major reservation keeping my enthusiasm in check, one that is critical unfortunately, is that the child actor Neel Sethi who plays Mowgli, the only live action performance in the movie, is not remotely up to the task of carrying the weight of this mammoth production. With a better lead actor, The Jungle Book would have had the potential to be the best crowd pleaser of the summer.
Writing a negative review of a well-intentioned child actor seems unnecessarily cruel, so I’ll redirect my negativity toward the filmmakers who appear to have picked their lead actor based solely on age and height without ever asking him to read a line or sing a song. Putting it nicely, the child is tone deaf and completely butchers his duet with Bill Murray. On the flip side, Christopher Walken utterly steals the show as the King Kong-sized King Louie with his show stopping tune “I Wan’na Be like You”. The cast overall is outstanding. Scarlett Johansson, Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley and Bill Murray all deliver incredible performances. I stopped thinking of their characters as CGI creations within the first few minutes and found myself frequently transported by the imaginative scope of the environment created by the filmmakers. Pretty much every detail of this movie is first rate, but all that hard work is in vain if the central character can’t hold the film together. There are so many classic movies that would have fallen apart without a strong child performance at its core, movies like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Stand by Me, Empire of the Sun, The Goonies as well as more recent films like Moonrise Kingdom. It is one of those details that is easy to criticize but hard to get right when making a movie. I’m sure this movie will perform just fine at the box office and my understanding is that Disney has already given the sequel the green light. Perhaps with a little age and experience, Neel Sethi might become a fine young actor. But for now, he holds back a good movie from possibly being a great one. So at the risk of completely contradicting my opening statements about “family friendly” entertainment, I do think this movie qualifies but unlike the animated film it is based on, I find it highly unlikely that the movie will be similarly beloved in 50 years time.
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