'The Jungle Bunch' ('Les As de la jungle'): Film Review

Courtesy of SND
A fun if familiar French toon.

Adapted from the popular kids TV series, this animated feature premiered at the Annecy Film Festival and is receiving a wide summer release in France.

Like its squad of pint-sized, crime-fighting underdogs, The Jungle Bunch (Les As de la Jungle) is, in its own way, a sort of cartoon David taking on the Goliaths of Hollywood animation. Based on the hit French kids series (airing on Sprout in the U.S.), the $8 million feature was made for a fraction of your typical Pixar or DreamWorks production, yet manages to rival the big leagues in terms of PG-rated mayhem.

In terms of originality, though, this second theatrical effort — after the 2011 featurette The Jungle Bunch: The Movie — from creators David Alaux, Jean-Francois Tosti and Eric Tosti feels more derivative than innovative, trafficking in the kind of snark and pop culture references we’ve seen too many times before, while doubling down on the CG violence (albeit of a rather harmless variety — although the film does kick off with one animal dying, Bambi-style, in an arson-induced forest fire.)

Such drawbacks have hardly stopped the 6-and-under set from coming out to catch this Gallic summer release, which has already scored over 350,000 admissions in two weeks. Given the franchise’s status overseas, where it’s present in more than 200 territories, the film should find some play in theaters and lots of love on the small screen.

After an action-packed opening, we meet Maurice (Philippe Bozo), an orphaned little penguin who was raised by the tigress, Natacha (Maik Darah). Even if by nature he's a bird, Maurice really wants to be a tiger like his mother, covering himself in orange war paint and adopting Natacha’s combat skills — which she honed while heading up a team of vigilante mammals known as “Les Fortiches,” which translates to “The Aces.” (Meanwhile, the film’s French title, which sounds like “The Jungle Asses,” translates to “The Jungle Aces.”)

Once he grows up, Maurice forms his own gang of do-gooders, joining hands with creatures like the silly gorilla Miguel (Pascal Casanova), the Yoda-esque primate Gilbert (Laurent Morteau), the she-bat Batricia (Celine Monsarrat) and a pair of comic relief toads named Al (Emmanuel Curtil) and Bob (Paul Borne). Together they try to stop whatever crime or misdemeanor comes their way, until taking on their greatest nemesis: the arch-evil koala Igor (Richard Darbois), whose sidekick is an enslaved crab and whose weapons of choice are mushrooms that turn into colorful exploding bombs.

It’s all a little zany and overcooked and childish, which is perhaps why the series has been so popular with French tykes and is probably better fitted for 22-minute episodes than feature-length treatment. In the hopes of perhaps luring in older viewers, the filmmakers also decided to toss in a bunch of meta moments, including references to Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, slow-motion fights straight out of Kung Fu Panda and the ironic use of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” during a psych-up scene.

If a lot of that seems highly manufactured, like the film is trying too hard to please, The Jungle Bunch does feature a few cleverly conceived Rube Goldberg contraptions that are used by both the good and bad guys, while the pacing is fast enough to gloss over the movie's rather limited imagination. And although it’s not exactly on par with the major studios, the animation work is nonetheless impressive ­— most notably in the depictions of all the tropical floral and fauna, as well as other details of the story's exotic setting. The soundtrack by Olivier Cussac (Cruel) is loud and omnipresent but ultimately gets the job done, just like Maurice and his crew.

Production companies: TAT Productions, SND-Groupe M6, France 3 Cinema, Master Films
Cast: Philippe Bozo, Pascal Casanova, Laurent Morteau, Richard Darbois, Maik Darah
Director: David Alaux
Screenwriters: David Alaux, Eric Tosti, Jean-Francois Tosti
Producer: Jean-Francois Tosti
Editors: Jean-Christian Tassy, Helene Blanchard
Composer: Olivier Cussac
Animators: Benoit Daffis, Laurent Houis
Storyboards: Nicolas Capelle, Benjamin Lagard, Isabelle Lemaux, Benoit Somville
Animation director: Jean-Christophe Bruneau
Sales: SND Groupe-M6

In French
97 minutes