Reviews: The Jungle Book

 

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I’ll admit, I’m not a big fan of Disney’s animated version of The Jungle Book. It’s a classic, to be sure, and it’s not in the least a bad movie, but it’s very light fare: just a simple coming-of-age story, and one in which the protagonist is little more than a prop being carted back-and-forth between the supporting characters (sometimes literally). Not to mention that Walt Disney’s budget woes certainly showed through with the unimpressive animation, some of which gets reused in the same film (the exact same animation is used to conclude both the Kaa sequences with nothing but a change in lighting to indicate that it’s supposed to be a different scene). All in all, it’s not one of Uncle Walt’s better films. The best part, I thought, was the ending, which has a greater emotional impact than anything else in the film and ends the story on a high note (also ending Walt Disney’s career on a high note, as he died during production).

With all that in mind, I had high hopes for Jon Favreau’s semi-live-action remake, and I’m pleased to say that they have been thoroughly justified, as almost everything about this film is a serious improvement on the original. The story is better. The themes are better. The characters are better. The visuals are much better. It’s just all around a much, much better movie.

In the jungles of India, a man-cub named Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) has been raised by a pack of wolves, led by the level-headed Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), who have accepted him as one of their own, even though he’s hopelessly outmatched by his brothers in everything a wolf needs to do to survive, and he disturbs them by his preference for ‘man tricks’ like drinking water from a shell. Still, he’s part of the pack and is well liked by all of them, especially his mother, Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). As Mowgli grows up, the wise old panther, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) does his best to mentor the young cub in the ways of the jungle.

But then, one day, the tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), comes into the wolves’ territory in search of the man cub. Shere Khan hates man with a passion and insists that Akela turn Mowgli over to him. With the fate of the whole pack jeopardized by his presence, Mowgli volunteers to leave and seek a new home for himself. Bagheera, however, knows that the only thing that can protect him is to return to his own kind.

Mowgli thus reluctantly sets out for the man village, though he has no idea how to be a man and wants nothing more than to stay in the jungle, especially after he befriends the jovial sloth bear, Baloo (Bill Murray). But Shere Khan has no intention either of letting the boy remain in the jungle or of letting him return to the safety of the man village.

The first thing The Jungle Book does right is the jungle itself, which is not just a background setting but a living, breathing community, with its own law, customs, cultures, and subgroups. The animals refer to the distinct species as “peoples,” each of which have their place in jungle life, and all (or most) of which honor the law of the jungle. There are jungle customs, such a the ‘water truce’ that opens the film: if, during the dry season, the waters recede enough that the ‘peace rock’ emerges, all hunting comes to a halt, as “drinking comes before eating.” There’s even a religious aspect to the jungle life: not in the sense of silly imitation of man’s ritual, but in the deeper, more basic sense that the jungle animals have a tradition of where they come from and how they fit into the hierarchy of nature (more on that later).

What we have here is, I was somewhat astonished to find, a largely non-anthropomorphized jungle. True, the animals talk and joke and have laws, but they’re convincingly animals with a distinctly non-human perspective on the world. Tools are strange and disturbing to their thoughts. The idea of hunting and being hunted is simply a part of life. And above all else, they fear fire, which is man’s great weapon. I was more than once reminded of Watership Down, which is pretty much the benchmark for presenting non-humanized animals.

In this, and in many other ways, The Jungle Book is an unusual experience, especially nowadays. Few filmmakers would have any interest in (or, to be blunt, sufficient courage for) presenting such a world or using it to explore the ideas that this one does. I can imagine almost any other filmmaker turning this into a tired environmentalist allegory, or misanthropic commentary, or perhaps even an anti-colonialism tale. Thankfully, Jon Favreau does something much more interesting and much more challenging: he uses it to explore the question of what separates man from the rest of nature.

As an ardent admirer of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry, I was delighted to discover that the film includes the opening lines of The Law for Wolves, which the pack recites in a prayer-like daily ritual. Other lines from the law are referenced at key points, as when Akela accuses Shere Khan of killing for pleasure contrary to the law. While watching, though, I kept thinking of another clause (unfortunately never mentioned in the film itself): Seven times never kill man.

Again and again, the movie emphasizes that Mowgli, as a man-cub, is something alien to the jungle: something that doesn’t fit in among the other beasts. Man is not just another animal, but something entirely different and, to the jungle creatures, strange and frightening. Even the monkeys, led by the oversized King Louie (Christopher Walkin), can’t do what he does, nor understand how or why he does it. Louie admires man, and envies him, squatting in the ruins of an ancient temple, surrounded by trinkets made by human hands, but he can’t be a man, because he isn’t. He doesn’t really understand or use the manmade artifacts that surround him (he calls the collection his ‘treasure,’ but amusingly enough, there doesn’t seem to be anything that a real man would consider particularly valuable: it’s mostly just rusting metal pots and the like. Though, in a very amusing allusion, he does have a cowbell).

At once point Bagheera and Mowgli observe a passing herd of elephants. Bagheera orders Mowgli to bow in reverence, as the elephants, he says, are the creators of the jungle. “They made everything that belongs. But they did not make you.”

The idea of man being something other than just another animal is all-but anathema these days. We moderns trip over ourselves to insist that man is nothing special. Indeed, only a couple weeks ago Batman v. Superman had professional atheist Neil deGrasse Tyson commenting that first Galileo showed us we weren’t the center of the universe and then that Darwin showed us we were just another species of animal (showing that history, logic, and basic observational skills are not his strong suit). The Jungle Book takes it for granted that man is unique among the animals and the whole film is about Mowgli learning to come to terms with and begin to embrace his nature as a man.

It is a sign of how the world has deteriorated since Kipling’s day that this notion that one cannot escape one’s own nature has become rather daring. No matter how much Mowgli wants it, he cannot be a wolf because he simply isn’t one. He can’t change what he is, which is a man. His ‘identity’ is determined by his birth, not his choice or his image of himself. He is a man, and he has to come to grips with that fact if he is to survive and triumph over Shere Khan, who certainly will treat him as a man no matter what.

And the fact is, Mowgli makes for a terrible wolf. He can howl, but he can’t keep up with his brothers, nor can he hunt with his teeth and claws. He simply couldn’t survive as a wolf, no matter how much the other wolves may love and help him.

But when he embraces his human nature, Mowgli not only is able to survive, but to thrive. He can do things that no other animal can. As a wolf, he’s all-but helpless. As a man, he’s a force to be reckoned with.

(I can’t resist: contrast with Disney’s last film, Zootopia, with its “If you want to be an elephant, you be an elephant” nonsense).

The key ‘man trick,’ of course, is mastery of fire (“Man’s red flower” as the rest of the jungle calls it). Fire is man’s birthright, and his greatest weapon against the creatures of the jungle. “Fire is what makes you a man,” King Louie tells Mowgli. The shadow (so to speak) of fire hangs over the whole film, as the true sign of Mowgli’s manhood. By taking up fire, he will forever claim his nature as a man, and not a creature of the jungle. If he does that, there will be no going back.

These are rich themes, rich and eternal, giving the movie roots in the great common stream of human experience. Here’s a movie that completely ignores the parochial concerns of the day in favor of wrestling with concepts that have haunted mankind from his earliest days. How many modern films, even the supposedly ‘prestigious’ ones, can say that?

But I’m making the movie sound more serious than it is. These themes run through the film, but at heart it’s a family adventure film of the kind that almost isn’t made anymore: something akin to Swiss Family Robinson or Treasure Island: a film that children (and especially young boys) will love to grow up on, filled with humor, action, menace, and fun. As is to be expected from the director of Iron Man, there are some great action sequences here, especially the climactic showdown with Shere Khan. And, more than that, this is a great adventure, full of travelling to new places, meeting new people, seeing new sights, and reaching a new level of maturity and enlightenment in the process.

There’re even a few monsters (love me my monsters). While most of the animals we see are real denizens of the Indian jungles, we also have the likes of King Louie, changed from an orangutan in the original film to a gigantopithecus (because orangutans aren’t native to India, so the filmmakers decided it’d be more realistic to have a creature that isn’t native to anywhere anymore. They would have been better off just saying “because it’s cool, okay?”), making him look like Mighty Joe Young’s evil cousin. As for Kaa the snake (Scarlett Johanssen), who knows why she seems to be about a hundred feet long, though to be fair, that is more or less how the character was described in the book, and if, like the original, she’s supposed to be the oldest creature in the jungle, that might make sense, since snakes grow throughout their lives.

I’m a little disappointed by Kaa, though purely for personal reasons. I really wish they had made her more in keeping with Kipling’s version, who was one of Mowgli’s friends and mentors and was revered as the oldest and wisest creature in the jungle. Sadly, though, with Sterling Holloway’s version so ingrained in the public mind, that probably wasn’t an option. This version is something of a cross between the Kipling and the animated character: she’s still a villain intent on eating Mowgli, but she’s no longer the comic, ineffectual character from the cartoon. This Kaa retains the literary Kaa’s vast knowledge and power, showing Mowgli a vision of where he came from while she prepares to constrict him.

My personal qualms aside, it’s a pretty cool and creepy sequence, and I wish Kaa had had more screen time. Hopefully the sequel (already in the works) will make more use of her (I’d really love to see them adapt one particular story where Mowgli has to go to Kaa for advice on how to deal with a looming threat to the wolf pack).

Baloo likewise is entirely in the mold of his animated version rather than the Kipling character, as if there were any doubt that Disney would alter the most beloved character from the original in any serious way. And who better to play a lovable slacker than Bill Murray? Granted, he doesn’t have the bear-like voice of Phil Harris, but he does have his own immense talent to contribute, and, well, he’s Bill Murray: what’s there to criticize?

I also like that Baloo is much more of a bear here. In the original, he was basically just a human in a bear suit: he even spent almost the whole movie walking on his hind legs. Here, for all his geniality, he’s established from the get-go to be a very powerful creature and a fierce protector of Mowgli’s (I like the bit, as they finish singing ‘the Bear Necessities,’ when Baloo senses something in the bushes and orders Mowgli to get behind him). His climactic fight with Shere Khan, purely comedic in the original (robbing the climax of much of its emotional power, by the way), is played completely straight here.

Similarly, Bagheera is a much more serious character than he was in the original, where he mostly served as the recipient of whatever unfortunate occurrence or prank was in the offing. Here he’s considerably more of a badass. I remember when I first saw the trailers showing that there would be at least one fight between him and Shere Khan thinking that that was something I’d always wanted to see in the original: we knew the wolves and Baloo were no match for the tiger, but what about Bagheera? He seemed pretty monty: what would happen if he fought the tiger? Now we know, and it’s very satisfying.

His role as Mowgli’s mentor is expanded upon here, and like Baloo he gets several good action sequences showcasing how dangerous he is (I also like how the other animals get nervous when he shows up at the water truce, establishing that he’s a feared predator in his own right). And of course, I’m always glad to see the great Ben Kingsley in a good role, something that happens with depressing rarity. I knew from the start that he would be the absolutely ideal choice for this role, and he doesn’t disappoint.

As for Shere Khan himself, George Sanders’s performance was one of the best things about the original film, but again, the character is even better here. He was cool in the original, but he wasn’t really scary. We knew that the characters feared him, but we didn’t. But oh boy, we sure do here!

The original Shere Khan was just a particularly dangerous predator. This Shere Khan is more than that: he’s an obsessive, savage, utterly lawless beast whom the whole jungle hates and fears, not just for what he can do to them, but because he doesn’t give a damn about the jungle law except insofar as it suits him. He’s an aberration in the jungle, almost as much as Mowgli himself, except that he has the power to do as he likes, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Shere Khan is scary because you really have no idea what he might do in any given scene. He has the power to murder any of the other characters, and it’s established early on that he will do so if he thinks it will get him what he wants. It’s been a long time since a villain has made me as nervous as Shere Khan, just for the sheer fact of wondering what he’ll do next. Of course, a fair amount of this stems from the wonderful Idris Elba’s pitch perfect performance. If a tiger ever speaks to me, I’ll expect it to sound like him.

The wolves, meanwhile, actually get characters in this version. In the original the wolf pack was more or less just backstory. We never got to know any of them, and they only really had the one scene. Mowgli didn’t seem especially fussed by having to leave them, and in fact, as far as I can recall, never even mentioned them at all after the first scene.

Here Mowgli’s relationship with the pack, and especially with his mother, Raksha, is front and center. He thinks of himself as one of the pack, and when he leaves it’s obviously a hard thing for him to do. Akela and Raksha both obviously love their strange adoptive cub, and they wrestle with the question of what to do about Shere Khan. The pack is a presence throughout the film, and their fate is almost as important to us as Mowgli’s. Raksha in particular is a cool character: we sense her strength and nurturing nature, even as she is forced to give way before the threat of the tiger. Whatever else Mowgli is, he’s her son, and nothing’s going to change that.

Akela’s a pretty cool character as well. Bagheera describes him as ‘just and noble,’ and that pretty much sums it up. He doesn’t really understand Mowgli’s ‘man tricks,’ but he loves his adoptive son and pack member, even if, as a good leader, he also has to consider his responsibility to the pack. He’s perfectly willing to protect Mowgli, but isn’t sure whether he can justify the danger of doing so.

Mowgli, therefore, has two loving and admirable parental figures, not to mention his mentor, Bagheera, and, later on, his friend Baloo. That’s a pretty good set of positive family figures. I also like that three of the four are male characters, and they all, ultimately, present a positive image of masculinity, from the responsible Akela to the wise and disciplined Bagheera, and even the jovial, but protective Baloo. It’s appropriate in a film about a boy embracing the path to manhood that most of his allies and guides are, for lack of a better word, men.

And what of Mowgli himself? Well, perhaps no single element has received, or needed, as much improvement as the man-cub himself. Let’s face it, the original Mowgli was pretty much just a helpless brat who was bounced between one character and another and, inexplicably, couldn’t get it through his head just how dangerous his situation was, and whose chief character development consisted of discovering girls.

This Mowgli, on the other hand, is a worthy protagonist. Significantly, he is the one who volunteers to leave the pack in order to protect them from Shere Khan, and while he doesn’t at first comprehend the danger he is in, he wises up early on. His reluctance to go to the man village is far more understandable this time around (he was raised as a wolf and has no idea how to live among men), and he’s far more able to take care of himself. As I mentioned before, Mowgli struggles throughout the film to come to terms with his human nature and his place in creation. This struggle manifests in his ‘man-tricks,’ something Bagheera disapproves of, but Baloo encourages. And his final show down with Shere Khan, rather than the lucky accident it was in the original, is here a true battle of man versus beast that has the weight of destiny to it.

Basically, Mowgli actually drives the story this time around: the movie is about him, not about his friends, and about how he grows and changes over the course of the film. Much kudos to newcomer Neel Sethi, who is remarkably persuasive in the role. He’s a little stiff at times, as is to be expected from a child actor, but he absolutely sells the character (even more impressive considering that, most of the time, he is the only real thing on the screen). I was also impressed by the physicality he brings to the performance: running, jumping, and climbing through the jungle as if he were born there. I suspect we’ll be seeing much more of this young man in the future.

Now, I’m something of a special effects buff. Ray Harryhausen and Eiji Tsubaraya are two of my personal heroes, I have an autographed poster of Tom Savini on my wall, and if someone offered me a choice between a trip to Disneyland and a tour of the Stan Winston Studio, I wouldn’t hesitate a second before choosing the latter. So when I tell you that the special effects in The Jungle Book are some of the best and most astounding I’ve ever seen, that’s saying something.

It’s a cardinal rule of animation that stylized or fantasy creatures are much easier to make convincing than real animals. This is because when you’re dealing with a dragon or a dinosaur, you’re dealing with something that no one has ever seen before. If you say they move a certain way, then, well, who’s to say they don’t? When you’re animating a real animal, on the other hand, the audience has something in their mind to compare it with, and if it isn’t perfect, the illusion will be broken.

Up until now, I can’t really think of any animated rendition of any contemporary animal that really made me think “wow, that looks real.” There’s always something off about it: the way it moves isn’t quite right, or the way it sits in the scene, or the colors are off, or it’s too glossy, or it just doesn’t seem natural.

Watching The Jungle Book, I had to keep reminding myself that nearly everything I saw was digital, and even as I did so I could hardly believe it. The animals all look perfect, or if not then really, really close. Look at the dirt clinging to Shere Khan’s belly. Look at the way his ears twitch at the buzzing of an unseen fly. Look at the way Baloo’s hair waves in the water. Look at the glossy blackness of Bagheera’s fur.

These are the first animated creatures of any kind that really convincingly capture the natural look of real animals photographed in the wild, with all the dust, all the tiny, unthinking movements, all the effects of sun and shade.

I thought I was done being impressed by CGI. After all, at a certain point (I think it was about 2004 or so), you just take it for granted that a big budget film with computer effects will have impressive eye candy, and special effects just don’t really matter anymore. Every now and again you’ll get something that sort of makes you nod with appreciation at the artistry and care put into it, but nothing really blows you away anymore. Then comes a film like The Jungle Book, which does something that you had previously thought to be more or less impossible, and suddenly you’re blown away again.

Put it this way: up until now the benchmark for digital effects has pretty much been Jim Cameron’s Avatar, another jungle-set film that was almost entirely CGI. In terms of spectacle, I’d say The Jungle Book beats Avatar hands down. Its effects are more masterful (parts of Avatar looked more like a very expensive video game), and it’s accomplishment is simply much more impressive for the reason listed above. This is a real jungle, filled with real animals; you know what it’s supposed to look like, and it looks all-but-perfect.

The only effect that comes to mind which didn’t look perfect to me was Kaa. Snakes, I’ve found, seem to be incredibly difficult to render convincing in CG. This, I think, is because real snakes are so glossy and have such stark patterns that already look a little surreal. When animated, that natural strangeness can’t help but work against the viewer and lend an unreal quality to the image. Still, Kaa isn’t by any stretch a bad effect, but she was pretty much the only animal in the film that I could have called as an effect if I had seen her out of context.

Not only are the effects brilliant, but the look and design of the film is gorgeous. The Indian jungle presented isn’t exactly real, but it’s perfectly stylize into a storybook version. This isn’t, perhaps, what we would really see if we went to India, but it’s exactly what would come to mind when reading about it. Add to that some striking imagery, such as the eerie, fog-shrouded region where Kaa makes her lair, or the crumbling ancient temple ruled by King Louie. I also loved the fire imagery, especially when Kaa introduced Mowgli to ‘Man’s red flower’ with an image of fire that really does look like a red flower, accompanied by a surreal vision of the destructive power of this most ancient ‘man trick.’

So, the film is thrilling, gorgeous, funny, has deep roots, and features some of the most amazing special effects I’ve ever seen. What’s bad about it? Not a whole lot, to be honest. While it’s funny, some of the dialogue, especially from Baloo, seemed jarringly out of place (“You have never been a more endangered species than you are right now”). I laughed, but I was also taken out of the world a bit. Mowgli has some similar lines (“Check it out!”), but I’m going to put those down to translation conventions. Still, it was one area that could have been improved.

In the run up to the film, a friend and I used to always joke about the idea of Christopher Walkin singing “I Wanna Be Like You.” Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I found that he does exactly that. I’m torn on the two songs present in the film (the other being, of course, The Bare Necessities). On the one hand, putting a pair of musical numbers in the middle of what is otherwise a perfectly straight family adventure represents a kind of audacious brilliance that I can’t help by admire, and giving one of them to Christopher Walkin of all people is one of the more wonderfully insane things I’ve seen in a recent movie, akin to the animated characters who pop up in one scene in Deadpool. On the other…it does feel kind of out of place. The Bare Necessities at least was supposed to be Baloo’s favorite song (though why does he know about music, but the wolves and Bagheera apparently don’t?), but I Wanna Be Like You just kind of comes out of nowhere, with Louie just bursting into song.

Louie himself feels a little out of place, partly because he’s explicitly an extinct animal (he even calls himself a ‘gigantopithecus,’ which I’m also going to put down to translation convention), and partly because the name ‘Louie’ simply doesn’t fit in alongside Mowgli, Baloo, Baheera, Shere Khan, and so on. This is because he wasn’t in the book, but was created by Disney for the animated film.

Basically, my main problem with the film is that it sometimes felt shackled to the original: the filmmakers were obliged to be like the animated version, but the animated version wasn’t nearly as good a film as this, so whenever the movie resorts to the original it can’t help but diminish itself some.

Oddly, one of the major changes from the original to this version was the best part of the animated film: the ending. I’ll admit, I was a little flummoxed when I realized they weren’t going to have the animated film’s ending, but on reflection I decided I didn’t mind so much. Mowgli definitely makes strides on his path to manhood, and as the filmmakers were obviously hopping for a sequel, I’ll consider the conclusion to Mowgli’s story to be deferred rather than altered. And after all, there’s plenty of Kipling to go around, and with a whole jungle’s worth of stories to draw from, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what Favreau and his crew come up with next.

As for Disney itself, this is the kind of thing that made the studio great: fantastic stories with deep roots in our common human experience, done with flare, humor, and artistry. Make more films like this and you will do Uncle Walt proud.

 

Final Rating: 4.5/5: A gorgeous, funny, thrilling film with strong roots, which injects Disney with some much-needed Kipling.

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One thought on “Reviews: The Jungle Book

  1. Pingback: Reviews: Pete’s Dragon | Serpent's Den

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