I was thinking…
…when animated films cast A-list actors in lead roles, they are only concerned with one thing: putting as many butts in the seats as possible. They do not care whether those actors are the best for the job, if their voices fit the character or even if they can act.
‘Actors who can’t act?’ you ask. But that doesn’t make sense.
Oh yeah? Kevin Costner. Channing Tatum. Kristen Stewart.
Anyway, voice acting is an entirely different art form from movie acting, just as movie acting is completely different from stage acting. Not everybody, no matter how accomplished they may be on the big screen, can fill the roles from behind the mic.
I was worried about just this issue when Disney announced the line-up for their live action The Jungle Book.
Written by Rudyard Kipling and originally published in 1893-94, The Jungle Book is Disney’s second take on the story and next step in converting their iconic animated tales into live action.
The story is about a little boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi in his feature film debut), who, after his father is killed, is found by a panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley—The Walk, Iron Man 3). Taken deeper into the jungle, Mowgli is raised as a member of the wolf pack.
Bagheera continues to teach and mentor the ‘mancub,’ as the animals call him, until the year of the drought when the evil tiger known as Shere Khan (Idris Elba—Zootopia, Avengers-Age of Ultron) accuses the rest of the animals of breaking the law of the jungle by harboring the boy.
Scarred and blind in one eye by man’s weapon–the red flower (otherwise known as fire)–Shere Khan claims that when Mowgli becomes a man, he will be a threat to all the animals of the jungle, so he demands the boy be handed over to him to be killed.
Mowgli’s adoptive mother, Raksha (Lupita N’yongo—Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 12 Years a Slave), refuses to give him up. This causes ripples of strife through the pack until Mowgli decides for himself that, for the good of the pack, he will strike out on his own and find sanctuary elsewhere.
Mowgli soon finds out, however, that Shere Khan will not just simply let him leave.
A somewhat darker retelling of the animated Disney film from 1967, this version of The Jungle Book is a welcome addition to the Disney animated-cum-live action oeuvre. Including some of the iconic songs from the original, such as “Bear Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You,” the film certainly maintains that Disney feel while still being its own entity.
The computer generated imagery of all the animals is nearly flawless with only brief moments of imperfection that are easy to overlook, considering most of the creatures are capable of speaking English. Certain of the beastly characters are so well done–such as the little wolf cubs in Mowgli’s family–it is difficult to restrain the impulse to pluck one of the little mites from the movie screen and keep it for oneself.
Director Jon Favreau fills the screen with shot after shot of nature’s beauty while the pace of the film moves with the speed of a greyhound with diarrhea. For some reason, I went into the film believing it to be roughly 90 minutes in length and walking out with the same misconception. It wasn’t until later I discovered it had been quite a bit longer, so rapid does the story move.
Returning to the issue of voice actors, A-list actors are a two-edged sword. Yes, they tend to generate more interest for some moviegoers, but they also run the risk of dispelling the suspension of disbelief. When an iconic voice surfaces, it can yank one out of the filmic world with all the force of a metal bungee cord. For this reason, other filmmakers have chosen, over the decades, to go with unknowns or proven voice actors so as to not ruin the illusion for their viewers. George Lucas, for one, is noted for hiring James Earl Jones to voice Darth Vader because he was not as well known–and therefore, did not possess as recognizable a voice–as Lucas’ first choice, Orson Welles.
Certain actors fill their roles with such perfection, however, the original voices in the 1967 version are all but forgotten. Ben Kingsley brings a cultivated wisdom to the panther Bagheera, and Lupita N’yongo–still hot off her portrayal of Maz Kanata in Star Wars VII–is completely swallowed up in the role of a selfless and loving mother wolf.
At first, the absence of the booming voices we have come to associate with Baloo the bear and Shere Khan is noticeable, but with time, both Idris Elba and Bill Murray make the roles their own. Elba makes the tiger more threatening than George Sanders did 50 years ago, and Baloo’s inherent laziness seems perfectly matched to Bill Murray’s voice.
King Louie–in this version a prehistoric gigantophithecus–is portrayed by iconic actor Christopher Walken (Jersey Boys, Balls of Fury). Walken seems the perfect man to tackle the mafioso-influenced King Louie, bringing an entirely different feel to the character than the scatting orangutan brought to life by singer Louis Prima in 1967.
Perhaps ideally cast is young Neel Sethi, who embodies Mowgli so well, even his walk matches that of the animated Mowgli. He is as lovable as his CG wolf cub brothers and plays off of all the nonexistent animals with professional aplomb.
Filled with moments of heart-touching emotion and innocent laughter, The Jungle Book is a joy to watch from the opening moments to the innovative end credits. It is a pleasure to be alive in an age when technology has allowed this movie to be made with a such credulity, one can only feel this is what Kipling pictured in his head when he first took pen to paper more than 100 years ago.
Ammo Dump rating: 9 out of 10 red flowers
I’ll talk more about this film and others during my radio show every Friday afternoon at 4:10 pm. Listen in on WJBC-AM1230 in Central Illinois. For the rest of the world, listen on @ALphaEXray.. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter
The Jungle Book
Run time: 105 minutes (1 hour, 45 minutes)