Shared Universe Thoughts

Expanding on what I said below on The Mummy, I would be all in favor of a new Universal Horror shared universe, but only if it were actually horror. You know, creeping dread, unsettling suggestions, icy fingers down your spine…any of this sound at all familiar? Then you could build up to having big set-pieces where the monsters run amok with each other, but always grounded in more immediate horror. Dracula isn’t scary when he’s wiping out armies single-handedly; he’s scary when he’s lurking about outside someone’s house, calling them to come embrace their own destruction.

Interestingly enough, I think Freddy vs. Jason (odd how often I return to that film) did this pretty well; the film is fast-paced and basically a comic book, but to their credit the filmmakers actually took their time and at least tried to scare us in the film’s early stages. Like when you see Jason is hanging about outside 1428 Elm…then one of the characters discovers the back door open. We know perfectly well what he’s capable of, but we’re not sure what he’s going to do here. Or the scene at the police station, where the heroine suddenly finds herself all alone, with a lot of ‘Missing Child’ posters. In other words, though the point of the film is the big, action-packed set piece, the filmmakers never forgot that this is first and foremost supposed to be a horror film and did their best to scare people as well and entertain them.

That’s really the big problem with most of the shared universe films that are trying to ape Marvel: they’re in such a rush to cash in that they throw everything they have in at once. Marvel took its time: it had five films under its belt laying the foundation before The Avengers, any one of which could more or less stand on its own (except Iron Man 2, which was of course a sequel). The DC films jumped immediately into bringing Batman and Wonder Woman into things (not to mention Doomsday and the Death of Superman a mere two films in), while Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman all had cameos, then they backfilled some of the villains in Suicide Squad with Joker, Harley, Deadshot, Killer Croc, and so on. The fact that almost all these characters fell flat only adds to the sense of desperation. Meanwhile, the horror films seem so desperate to be a tentpole franchise that they’re throwing in all this stupid CG action that neither works as horror (half the movies that come out have some major landmark destroyed in almost the same fashion: it’s not scary) nor, from the looks of it, as pulpy adventure (as in the Stephan Summer Mummy movies).

Actually, the only such shared universe that seems to be working is the kaiju-verse, and surprise! They took their time, with standalone Godzilla and Kong films before the two are scheduled to meet in the big crossover event. Moreover, the standalone films don’t seem like they’re just there to set up a big crossover; they actually feel like real films that someone wanted to make for their own sake.

Anyway, no one’s touching Marvel’s achievement for a long time to come, and DC’s failures only make Marvel’s triumph that much more impressive. Now if they could only do something about fixing their comics department, and by ‘fixing’ I mean ‘cleaning house with a flamethrower.’

So…What Do I Get for my Income Tax?

A scene from the 1938 Frank Capra classic (pardon my repetition) You Can’t Take it With You. 

The sad thing is, the things listed here would actually be worth paying for. I’d kill to have my income tax only go to pay for battleships and government salaries.

The clip is also interesting for featuring a really incredible set of star-power packed into five minutes of film. That the legendary Lionel Barrymore as Grandpa Vanderhof, the all-but-immortal Charles Lane (who was still making films in the 1990s) as the IRS man, James Stewart as young Kirby, and the inimitable Jean Arthur as Alice. Meanwhile, in the background, you can see character actors Ann Miller, Spring Byington, Samuel S. Hinds, and Halliwell Hobbs.

Amazingly enough, that doesn’t even come close to exhausting the familiar faces in this film: Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (most famous for the Jack Benny Program, and probably the premier Black comedian of the time) is on hand as the shiftless boyfriend of the family maid, hamtastic character actor Mischa Auer is a mad Russian ballet teacher, Edward Arnold is Kirby senior (giving the stand-out performance of the film), Donald Meek is another house guest, and H.B. Warner (one day to be Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life) shows up as a ruined businessman. And all directed by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

Of course, the real point of the above scene is that Grandpa doesn’t need anything from the government. In fact, they don’t need anything from anyone. Interestingly, part of the reason they don’t need anything is because they have the right to private property; Grandpa owns the house in New York City that they live in (truly the past is another country) and can basically do what he likes with it. If he wants to invite any interesting stranger to come and stay, and if they happen to stay for decades on end, well, what of it? It’s his house.

This is a frequent theme in Capra’s works; skepticism of the rich is blended with a strong regard for property rights, because, in Capra’s view, the right to own property ensures individual liberty. The Vanderhof family can do as they like and ask nothing from anyone because they own their own house.

Owning their own property also allows them to be charitable and contribute to society. The Vanderhof’s aren’t idle bums; they (in Grandpa’s words) “Toil a little, spin a little, and have a barrel of laughs.” Everyone produces something, and no one asks for charity (well, except for Rochester’s character, who’s a lovable bum…but so is Micha Auer’s character).

This calls to mind Ephesians 4:28 “He that stole, let him now steal no more; but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have something to give to him that suffereth need,” which brings me to the other reason the Vanderhof’s don’t need anything from the government: faith and family. They support each other, and God supports all of them. Grandpa makes this explicit right off the bat when asked who takes care of them; “The same one who takes care of the lilies of the field,” and further emphasized by the scenes of him offering grace that bookend the story.

Personally, I’m very skeptical of Chesterton’s notion of ‘Distributism.’ Brilliant as he was, he had a glaring blind spot as far as economics were concerned (something he shared with many other brilliant men, including Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. It seems the qualities that make for philosophical genius tend to create gaps as far as economics are concerned). However, as an ideal for individuals, a self-sufficient household that asks nothing and produces worthwhile goods to support itself is something worth striving for. It is a very Christian and Biblical notion; each family supporting itself and providing charity to those in need from its own property, bound together by shared faith and love.

Property, faith, and family are the trinity that allows for individual liberty. In our world, we’ve largely lost all three to the extent that we hardly know what we have lost.

New Federalist Essay

My latest piece is up at The Federalist, using King Kong and Godzilla to describe the human condition. Because I do that sort of thing.

Sample:

I say an anti-war message doesn’t suit Kong because, especially as depicted in this film, Kong is a warrior, and really doesn’t have the option to not fight. His presence is the only thing that allows the island’s natives to live in a cartoony utopia (that, for some reason, doesn’t include smiling) and possibly prevents the rest of the world from being threatened. Godzilla was in much the same position in the previous film, as the only thing standing between humanity and destruction by the electricity-draining MUTOs.

In either case, the image is of a world that is only allowed to continue in whatever state of peace or safety it has because there’s a ferocious warrior standing guard, ready to push back the things that threaten to destroy it. “Godzilla” made this link explicit by casting soldiers as its human leads (in fact, “Godzilla “was the closest thing to a pro-war, or at least pro-warrior, movie I’ve seen in a long time), while “Kong” has its chief human warrior character as an Ahab-like antagonist.

The good news is that “Kong” has more than enough sheer creativity and enthusiasm for the material that makes it worth sitting through tired anti-Vietnam agitprop. Also, the medium undermines the would-be message. The very nature of a kaiju film like this forbids any kind of triumphant humanism. In a world where monsters the size of buildings stand guard against creatures that can shut down a city with a single move, there really is no room to hope that mankind has the wherewithal to end the perennial ills of the human condition.

king-kong

 

Reviews: Pete’s Dragon

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Pete’s Dragon, like Cinderella or The Jungle Book, is a remake of a classic Disney film that not only improves on the original, but also manages to be a refreshingly individual film in its own right. Here’s a movie that doesn’t so much defy formula as simply ignores it; it’s content to simply tell its own story, without any kind of heavy handed message or attempt to appeal to mass audiences. Probably not everyone will like this movie; it has a leisurely pace and little ‘action,’ and the humor is low-key and elicits smiles rather than laugh-out-loud moments.

That, to my mind, is part of what makes the film special. Against all odds, this isn’t just a media giant attempting to cash in on a familiar title; it’s an honestly good story told by people who clearly cared a lot about the finished product. To me, it feels a lot like a classic children’s book; the kind that adults look forward to reading to their kids.

When five-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegly) is orphaned in a car crash in the Pacific Northwest, he finds himself unexpectedly adopted by a friendly, furry dragon whom he christens ‘Eliot’ after the main character of his favorite book. Six years later, he’s discovered by forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who, together with her father, Meachem (Robert Redford), her fiancée Jack (Wes Bentley) and his daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), slowly comes to realize that Pete comes with an unexpected level of magic.

Like I say, the film moves leisurely, spending lots of time just hanging around with its characters, especially Pete and Eliot. Their relationship is obviously at the heart of the film, and plays out rather like that of a boy and his dog. Only, of course, this dog is twenty feet tall, can fly, and can turn invisible. The relationship is charming, and Eliot is cute without overdoing it (one detail I especially liked was that Eliot has several noticeable battle scars, hinting that the dragon isn’t just a cuddly pet). Needless to say, the effects that bring the dragon to life are excellent, and I applaud the decision to make Eliot a mammalian dragon rather than your standard scaly beast. Not only does this make him more cuddly (and make his devotion to Pete more plausible), but it also makes him feel more at home in the Pacific Northwest setting (you don’t find pythons or crocodiles in Washington state or Canada). If there are dragons in those woods, I would expect them to look more like Eliot than, say, Smaug. Some might complain this makes his color-changing ability a bit harder to swallow, but then again, who’s to say it isn’t just magic? Put it this way; I found Eliot’s invisibility powers far easier to swallow than those of the last monster to share a screen with Miss Howard.

The movie spends its time, not in hairs-breadth escapes or high adventure, but in setting moods and encouraging us to enter into the feel of the scene: playful when Pete and Eliot are rollicking through the forest. Peaceful and serene when Grace is walking through the forest. Warm and comfortable when we’re sitting in Jack and Natalie’s house. Wonder and amazement when Eliot reveals himself to the other characters.

Though, of course, there is a story, and things do happen. Pete, having spent so long in the woods, at last begins to find himself tempted back to civilization, first by a chance encounter with Grace, then by another with Natalie (thus, he’s drawn out by beauty; a very nice touch). Of course, once it’s discovered that there’s a little boy living alone in the woods, no self-respecting adult is going to just let him stay there. Pete’s first encounters with civilization are very well done, as we’re allowed to feel his confusion, disorientation, and desperation to get back home, and then his growing comfort under the loving care of the family he stumbles into. The only problem is…what’s going to happen to Eliot? Especially when Jack’s troublemaking brother Gavin (Karl Urban) sets his sights on the beast.

Among the film’s bold moves is to avoid having a real villain. Gavin serves as the antagonist, but he’s not a bad guy. He’s just an ordinary, flawed human being. He’s presented as kind of a jerk, but his actions, though selfish, are by no means unreasonable and he has more than one redemptive moment. In fact, all the characters here are refreshingly ‘normal.’ They’re not generic Hollywood character types, but individuals of their own time, place, and milieu. I cannot stress enough how relieved I am that the film isn’t yet another rural-bashing story about small-minded villagers who hate whatever they don’t understand (a trope I have grown to loathe so much that it makes me cringe even in otherwise brilliant films like Beauty and the Beast). Everyone here is basically a decent person, and the small-town rural setting is presented with real affection.

I also like that the movie doesn’t feature any modern technology like cell phones or computers, and that the time period is deliberately left ambiguous. It could be modern day, or the eighties, or even the seventies. This helps give the film a timeless feel that fits perfectly.

Thematically, the movie tackles the rich and deceptively complex theme of belief and magic, a theme previously given scope in the writings of C.S. Lewis and, especially, J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay On Fairy Stories. Imagination, wonder, and the humble enjoyment of the secret glories of creation are woven throughout the film, not only in the presence of the dragon but in the joy the characters take in the forest and the delight of working with your hands and spinning tall tales. Eliot in particular brings magic with him, but the encounter with him deepens and enriches an experience that was already ‘magical’ in effect.

These ideas are drawn out in broad strokes primarily by Meachem (a wonderful performance by Mr. Redford). He’s a wood-carver who spins tall-tales about an encounter with “the Millhaven Dragon,” but whose stories turn out to have a core of truth to them. He insists that seeing the dragon brought with it a kind of “magic” that has never left him.

“It changes the way I see the world,” he tells Grace. “The trees, the sunshine, you.”

Reinforcing this is a folksong, played over the opening and sung later in the film by one of the characters, telling of the ‘dragons’ who live in the forest, calling to mind hic dracones and the primeval human tendency to fill unexplored regions with fairies and monsters. Later, Pete and Natalie have a thoughtful (though entirely childlike) discussion of imagination and reality.

I remembered C.S. Lewis’s comments in On Writing for Children; “Fairyland,” he says. “Arouses in [the child] a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him, to his lifelong enrichment, with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods. This reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” Pete’s Dragon is a film that not only explores this idea, but is itself a shining example of it. It rings with the love of nature, not in silly half-pagan environmentalism but in humble joy at the beauty of creation.

Like The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon is another movie that ignores parochial themes for deeper, timeless ideas that seek to enrich the viewer rather than instruct him.

Though I enjoyed the movie immensely, I find I don’t have a whole lot to say about it, at least not that would fit in a review. This isn’t the kind of film where a whole lot happens, so that you can say ‘here’s how this scene went’ or ‘I liked this bit.’ Rather, it’s a film that is best just seen and enjoyed.

I feel as though there are two Disneys at work today. One is the giant money making machine, pumping out films of varying quality, but all very much catering to the tastes of the filmmakers and the audience; no different from any other media empire.

Then there’s the Disney of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon (and, on the small screen, of Phineas and Ferb): the Disney that is still animated by the spirit of Uncle Walt, that has his audacity, his love of storytelling, and his ability to reach right down to the roots of our common humanity to inspire wonder and joy in the audience. I can only hope that this latter Disney continues to produce films like this.

Final Rating: 4.5/5: Probably not for everyone, but a film to treasure.

 

 

Seven Things that Were Good About the ‘Super Mario Brothers’ movie:

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m something of a connoisseur of video game movies, so of course I’ve seen Super Mario Brothers many, many times. As far as the genre is concerned, that’s the big one: the first major video game franchise to be adapted for the big screen.

Too bad it’s a really terrible movie. The script is awful, the set design and art direction are hideous, the Blade Runner-for-kids tone is jarringly out of place, and its connections with the world of the games, even such as it was at the time, are tenuous at best. Mario himself is sidelined while Luigi takes center stage as the romantic lead, Bowser/King Koopa is nothing but Dennis Hopper in a bad haircut, the Mushroom Kingdom is a dystopian nightmare covered in mold (Mario himself dubs it “A building with athlete’s foot”), and there are strange and disturbing sexual innuendoes, as when Mario ends up dancing with a huge, terrifying woman and trying to bite her necklace out of her cleavage.

All that being said, I retain a small, sneaking liking for the movie. Partly that’s nostalgia (when I was a kid I loved it, since, hey, it was a Mario movie!), but partly that’s because there are good things here, buried like jewels in a pile of diseased, pulsating mold.

Here are my picks for the top seven good things about the Super Mario Brothers movie:

7.Dennis Hopper. He goes low on the list because of how horribly botched the character is, but really, Dennis Hopper as Bowser is a pretty good casting choice. You’d have to digitally tweak his voice down a bit, but Hopper excelled at playing hammy, arrogant bad guys who were fun, but undeniably evil, which is exactly the persona Bowser should have. If, that is, they had actually, you know, tried to put him on screen.

All that being said, Dennis Hopper was far too talented an actor to completely humiliate himself even here. Though he’s clearly embarrassed by the role he does his best and his scenery-chewing performance remains entertaining throughout.

6.The Fire Flowers. The movie’s attempts to transition game elements into live action for the most part are either utter failures or just plain stupid. One triumphant example, however, is the film’s version the fire flower. Instead of being an actual flower, it’s a combination shotgun-flamethrower with a vaguely flower-like muzzle. They’re pretty cool weapons and, amazingly enough, actually function more or less like the fire flowers in the game, shooting a series of fireballs.

5.The Special Effects. With a few exceptions, the special effects are often very impressive and were cutting-edge for the day. Unaccountably hideous, yes, but very well executed. In fact many of the digital effects (such as Daisy’s face appearing in stone) were actually invented for the movie. The goombas are incredibly stupid conceptually, but the mechanics involved in their creation are undeniably impressive, and the final shot of the Mushroom King turning back into Lance Henriksen is really fantastic.

Note: the great Mr. Henriksen would have ended up on this list if he’d had more than ten seconds of screen time. Even so, they’re a bright ten seconds and he has more fun with his cameo than most of the cast has with the whole film.

4. Some of the Humor Just Works. Yeah, the script is terrible and most of the attempts at comedy are simply cringe worthy. That said, some lines just work, whether because they’re actually good or because the cast is talented enough to make them work. Some bits that I thought were actually funny include Mario and Luigi’s reaction upon arriving in the dystopian ‘Dinohattan:’

Luigi: “Maybe we fell asleep for a thousand years and this is Manhattan in the future.”
Mario: “Or the Bronx today. No wonder they tell you never to come down here.”

Another good bit is the brothers’ reaction to their mug shots, and I also like Mario’s griping in the Koopahari Desert:
“Yeah, that looks good. Let’s die there!”

So, the film is mostly terrible, but every so often it genuinely makes you laugh. On that subject…

3. Big Bertha. Yes, her scenes are completely inappropriate for a Mario Brothers movie, but Big Bertha is just so bizarre and over-the-top that she almost can’t help being entertaining. She’s this huge, terrifying woman dressed all in red spikes who just comes out of nowhere and begins throwing people around like ragdolls while flirting with Mario in a manner that suggests she plans to eat him. Of the many completely inexplicable elements in this film, she’s one that at least gets some laughs.

2. Yoshi. No, he’s not quite the character he was in the games (being too small to ride), but the movie Yoshi nevertheless remains the lovable, stalwart ally he ought to be, complete with his inexplicably long tongue for reeling in enemies. In addition, the puppetry effects that bring him to life are nothing short of fantastic: almost on a level of the Jurassic Park animatronics, allowing the other characters to physically interact with him and making him a real presence on screen (today he would be done with CGI, but I think the puppet is more effective). All in all, compared to how botched almost everyone else is, Yoshi’s probably the character that survived the transition to live action most recognizably himself.

And the number one best thing about the movie:

1. Bob Hoskins as Mario. If you were to choose the best possible actor to play Mario in live action from any time period, I think Bob Hoskins circa 1990 would have to be near the top of the list. Not only was he a phenomenal actor (and, God bless him, he tries his hardest here), but he had exactly the ‘everyman’ persona that Mario ought to have, yet could play a romantic hero at need (see Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Seeing him in costume, he looks like Mario, and I can easily picture him carrying the film as the hero of a fantastic adventure…

Only, of course, that’s not the movie we got, and one of the most perfect marriages of actor and video game characters was thrown away.

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.