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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Jungle Book Teaser Trailer

Edited by Robert Beach 

Just when you thought the up-jumped fairy tale trend was dead and buried, it’s back from the grave and honestly looking better than ever. I’m honestly not that surprised that it took the involvement of Disney to finally get something good out of this over-used genre. Back in the days before Star Wars made fantasy a viable blockbuster option, Disney was one of the only names in the game alongside Ray Haryhausen, and a lot of their live-action fantasy adventure films were incredibly well received. 

They’re forgotten nowadays, but films like Swiss Family Robinson and Bed Knobs and Broomsticks were major hits in their day. Additionally, Disney was pretty much the only company not to copy the Lord of the Rings approach to fantasy in the 2000s, blazing their own path with Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.  Even though Disney didn’t kick-off the fairy tale fantasy craze of the 2010s, they’ve thoroughly capitalized on it. And now they’re at it again with this first trailer for next year’s Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau.

Cards on the table, this trailer is great, and the movie itself looks amazing. I love the scale of the animals involved compared to Mowgli, and the visual design of the jungle is deeply evocative and off-putting in a great way.  What’s more, the visual aesthetic of having no other humans around is deeply affecting in a way I really didn’t think it would be. What’s most interesting to me about the trailer is where it falls in the stylistic development of director Jon Favreau. 

Before Iron Man in 2008, Favreau was basically unknown, mainly doing television work. When his Marvel smash propelled him into blockbuster director status, he brought a very bizarre ethos to the work. A good indicator of this is just how weirdly compelling Iron Man was despite having very little action in it. Since his Marvel work, he’s had a very odd career trajectory. First, the deservedly maligned Cowboys and Aliens followed the very well received low-budget Chef. 

He’s a director with serious vision and creativity, but he tends to come off awkward and unsure when constrained if anyone but him is controlling the direction of his films, hence why Iron Man 2 and Cowboys and Aliens are as poor as they are. His status as a relatively early bloomer, thanks to Marvel, has left him more hesitant to parlay his blockbuster fame into additional films. Especially compared to folks like Kenneth Branagh or even Bryan Singer who capitalized on their film success much more. 

I’d like to think that Favreau’s 4 years away from the mainstream has given him a greater sense of personal definition. After seeing Neil Blomkamp and Brad Bird race to keep their presence in the blockbuster scene to sacrifice their own growth as storytellers, it’d be nice to see a promising director like Favreau take his time and realize his own interests and strengths as a storyteller. That seems to be the case with Jungle Book. A big part of the trailer indicates the film will rely more on visual spectacle than violent action to drive the adventure of the story. That’s a clever approach to the genre and plays to Favreau’s strengths. Iron Man’s best sequences were just the hero learning to use his own armor.

The other big strength of the trailer puts Scarlet Johansson’s monologue as Kaa, the duplicitous serpent front and center. Of all the major impacts of the Marvel universe, Johansson’s career explosion is probably the greatest positive. Before her role as Black Widow, most folks had barely ever heard of her. After her appearance in Avengers, and subsequently excellent role in Captain America: Winter Soldier, she’s been catapulted into the mainstream and is perfectly suited for it. 

Aside from just looking like a movie star, Johansson possesses a great range beyond just “Imposing female ass kicker,” and I’m glad to see her used as a villain in Jungle Book. Her skill as playing villainous characters hasn’t really been explored before now, except in the excellent and massively underrated Under the Skin. Jungle Book is full of great voice acting talent like Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, and Idris Elba, but I would not be surprised at all if Johansson ends up the stand out of the flick. 

What I like most about this film is how much it doesn’t seem like a producer-driven product pushed out to keep the Disney in-house, live-action brand present on the blockbuster stage. As Disney has come to rely more and more on external studios to keep their name meaningful in blockbuster circles, they’ve ended up with a lot of bad films released just to keep their in-studio side humming. Stuff like John Carter, Tomorrow Land, Cinderella, and Lone Ranger were all put out simply so Disney could say they did indeed have a film of their own that year; that's in addition to all the Marvel, Pixar, and Lucas stuff already racking in cash for them. Pretty much since 2013 things have been shifting in the Disney dynamic of how these films are made. 

2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful may not have been very good, but it was driven much more by the vision of director Sam Raimi than anything else. The same goes for the incredibly out-there, risky Maleficent from last year, which was driven predominately by the energy and creativity of main star Angelina Jolie. Disney is still marketing the film around the pure iconography of the classic original, especially with that ending snippet of the Bear Necessities. The film itself seems to be driven much more by Favreau’s interests and ideas than by the simple desire to have a live-action Disney movie come out in 2016. 

The fantasy genre is still more or less aesthetically adrift: Game of Thrones continues to recede in influence, The Hobbit failed to find a place of importance, and bizarre new challengers like Warcraft and Dungeons & Dragons enter soon. Now more than ever is a good time for creatives with weird visions to jump in and leave a mark. It’s still too early to say how much of an influence Jungle Book will have on the genre overall or even on Disney’s other upcoming fairy tale films like Beauty and the Beast and Mulan, but at the very least it, looks like its headed in the right direction.

The Jungle Book is scheduled for release on April 15, 2016

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