Friday, April 15, 2016

“The Jungle Book” – Your kids will have nightmares.

As I sat through the end credits of The Jungle Book, it ended in a way that I was not expecting – with a big rating block proclaiming that the movie was rated PG-13. I wasn’t actually waiting for the rating block; I was watching the credits to confirm that Christopher Walken and Bill Murray did in fact sing their own songs (we’ll get to that in a minute). My point is that, previous to the screening, I had read that the movie was rated PG. The best way I can describe my surprise at the truth goes something like this – how many teenagers out there are excited to watch a movie featuring a young boy in a red diaper, running around the jungle and singing with animals? You’re with me now, aren’t you?

Just to be clear, I wasn’t surprised that this movie was rated PG-13 after watching it. Swap in humans for the animals and you end up with the equivalent amount of violence as most of our superhero movies, plus of healthy dose of scares. Though, none of our superhero movies have featured a monstrous snake about to swallow a small boy whole and, yes, there were kids in the theater crying during this scene. It is legitimately frightening for younger viewers, and good luck ever getting those kids to go near even a garden hose any time soon.

So, who is this movie for? If teenagers don’t give a shit and younger children will be traumatized, why did Disney spend $175 million to make a live action version of the 1967 animated classic? Surely, they don’t think adults are going to flock to the theater for nostalgia, do they? Maybe it’s because they have so much Star Wars and Marvel money lying around that interns were vanishing in piles of thousand dollar bills spilling out of the break rooms and OSHA made them address the problem. I might not be able to discern the target audience for this movie, but I am sure of one thing – this movie brings nothing new to the table, and it’s a very expensive table.

(The only possible SPOILER in this movie is the end, since this movie is almost a clone of the 1967 cartoon. And, yes, I’m going to spoil that end because it sucked.)

If you are unfamiliar with the story of The Jungle Book, it’s about a young boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) who is raised by wolves in the jungle, but must leave the wolves and the jungle before a tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), kills him. It’s a simple plot and the meat of the movie is Mowgli’s journey, highlighted by run-ins with a bear, Baloo (Murray), and an orangutan, King Louie (Walken), the climactic showdown with Shere Khan, and the presence of his escort, a panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), who is trying to get Mowgli to the man-village. To answer your question - yes, I am describing the 1967 version and, yes, I am describing the 2016 version. For $175 million, Disney made an unoriginal, 3-D, mostly CGI-animated version of a cartoon, but without any of the charm of that cartoon.

To be fair, there are a couple of differences worth noting, but none of them are good. King Louie is roughly the size of a Pizza Hut because the tree-sized snake, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), wasn’t scary enough for small children. And speaking of Kaa, she gets one single scene that lasts about three minutes – just enough time to try to hypnotize and eat Mowgli before being swatted by Baloo. What a waste. Then, there are those songs you remember, but butchered by actors who do not have singing careers for a reason. Maybe there was a time decades ago when Murray and Walken could hold a tune, but this was just bad. I once heard Kevin Pollack joke that when he gets a crappy song stuck in his head, he uses Walken’s voice to help get it out by singing the song in that voice. That’s how “I Want to Be Like You” sounded in the movie. On the flip side, Johansson does a solid job reprising Kaa’s “Trust in Me” during the end credits, but that just makes you even more annoyed at how little screen time she got.

But, the most notable changes relate to Mowgli. For starters, the kid knows how to solve complex engineering problems despite having grown up with wolves and never having attended even one class at MIT. He’s adept at making ropes, pulley systems, and cutting tools, much to Baloo’s delight as Mowgli succeeds in obtaining the honeycomb that Baloo was lusting after. Of course, as in the cartoon, Mowgli doesn’t know how to make fire (much to Louie’s dismay), which seems a little odd considering the rest of his technical knowhow, including banging rocks together to crack them into cutting tools. Are you really telling me that not one spark flew during all that banging?

But the biggest change is the ending. The best thing about the cartoon was how, after all of Mowgli’s resistance to going to the man-village, all it took to convince him to go was a cute girl batting her eyelashes at him. And that’s perfect because that’s exactly how a child nearing puberty would act. Unfortunately, Disney is hell-bent on franchising The Jungle Book (they’ve already begun work on a sequel), so the film ends in a full circle – with Mowgli running through the jungle with the wolves and nary a cute girl in sight. Of course, for the sake of sequels they probably shouldn’t have dropped Shere Khan from a tree and burned him alive, but at least now we know what got them that PG-13 rating.

Besides Mowgli, the other large change is with Shere Kahn. Rather than hunting Mowgli, he simply kills the wolfpack leader, Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), and tells the rest of them to spread the word that Akela is dead, assuming that Mowgli will come racing back to avenge Akela’s death. Seriously?! Nevermind the sheer laziness of this event – that very act, which happens early in the film, removes nearly all of the tension and drama of the film because now there isn’t an angry tiger hunting Mowgli and it’s only a matter of time before the script tells Mowgli to fulfill Khan’s assumption. Plus, blood-thirsty tiger hunt was the only thing left to keep those teenagers interested and now they don’t even have that.

Based on early reviews, you’re going to think I’m crazy (as of 1:00pm on April 13, the movie has a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but those critics are making the same mistake they made with movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and John Wick. They are deliberately ignoring a regurgitated story (or non-existent story in those other movies), inconsistent world building, and a worse ending because of the visuals or, as The Guardian put it, the “hyperreal digital animation.” They aren’t asking questions like “why can’t the elephants or monkeys talk, but every other animal can, including King Louie – a monkey?” or “if Shere Khan didn’t know Mowgli was in the cave when Khan killed Mowgli’s father, how does Khan know that Mowgli is that guy’s son?” or “the man-village seems to consist of a bunch of drunk idiots and a massive bonfire – how is what seems to be a Texas A&M pep rally gone bad safer than a murderous tiger?“ or even “the animals know what propaganda is, but not fire? How creepy is it that they all refer to it as The Red Flower? It’s a jungle – I’m sure they have actual red flowers there.” Essentially, these critics are saying “look at the pretty colors” while lapsing into a state of stupor brought on by 3-D IMAX.

I realize this is a lot of complaining about a movie that is the very definition of the word “meh.” It’s really not that bad of a movie, just a flawed movie lacking any creativity or something new to say about the source material. It’s a movie that seems to have no real target audience beyond people who are enamored by shiny things. But the real problem with this flick is that it is inferior in every way, save special effects, to a fifty-year old cartoon made for $4 million that actually is appropriate for your young children to see.

Rating: Unless your only motivation was to see a fake CGI jungle in IMAX, ask for all of your money back. You’ll need it for your kids’ therapy.

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