Director Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is Disney’s latest attempt to reinvent some of the kingdom’s animated classics as live-action pieces. Almost exclusively completed in vivid CGI, the new Jungle Book thus falls somewhere between the two realms, since it can only really be said to star one live-actor (Neel Sethi as Mowgli) while the rest of the characters remain animated.
But what animation! The new computer-generated jungle is jaw-droppingly vivid and realistic. Complete with all the fascinating flora and fauna of jungle life, Favreau’s attempt to recreate the heady jungle atmosphere is gorgeously effective. From water buffalo grazing along the muddy banks of an Indian river, to mist-filled groves of trees overgrown with creeper vines, to lush vegetation along beehive-laced cliffs, the setting is, to say the least, breathtaking. The animal characters are particular triumphs: from the rippling striped shoulders of Shere Khan (Idris Elba lending intimidating viciousness to the character), to the flickering eyes of cat-like panther Bagheera, to the furry body of Baloo the Bear swimming lazily in swirling brown currents. Realistic snarls and hisses and howls flesh out the rich portraits of these beasts.
This life-like quality of the film is up front its very strongest characteristic. To be sure, the filmmakers have made a decent attempt at re-working the original Disney story into this vivid setting; while they lend a new realism and identity to the story, they also pay homage to the beloved original. But whether or not they succeed in blending this shockingly-realistic new world with the quaint charm of the 1967 classic is debatable.
Credit must first of all be given to the one live actor, Neel Sethi, who is about as perfect an incarnation of Disney’s original Mowgli as could have possibly been hoped. Spunky, innocent, or moody by turns, he captures both the raw boyishness of the character and the uniquely human creativity that is a sign of both his origin and end, setting him apart from the beasts.
While filling out a very solid screenplay with fresh scenarios, enjoyable dialogue, and well-rounded plotlines, the filmmakers somewhat unpredictably preserved some things from the animated version but re-wrote others in a more dark and realistic way. For instance, the Elephants are no longer a fun poke at pompous British imperialism; here they have been raised to the level of jungle deities, held in reverent awe by other animals, and credited with the power of creation. Also, only some animals seem to have the power of communicating with Mowgli; others are inexplicably inarticulate.
Yet there are a number of successful revisions that enrich this version of the story, harkening back to Kipling’s original stories and setting the film on its own feet apart from the animated classic. The animals’ fidelity to the “law” of the jungle is one such detail. So too is the emphasis on Mowgli’s unique humanity, seen here in his ability to be inventive—a quality the other animals lack and refer to as “man tricks.” Interestingly, as a human being with the capability of creating and ordering his environment, Mowgli seems to have a natural place above even the elephant, though Bagheera urges him to bow before them in reverence. Mowgli alone can help the elephants by human ingenuity when one of them is in trouble, and in the end he alone seems to be able to have the privilege of working in collaboration with them, or even over them.
In their old places are all the familiar characters. Ben Kingsley brings noble dignity to the play-by-the-book panther Bagheera who acts as a sort of godparent to Mowgli and oversees the child’s rearing by the wolf pack. Bill Murray fills in the favorite role of lovable scamp Baloo the Bear with an endearing blend of loyalty and self-interest. As in the original, Bagheera and Baloo are perfect foils for each other, the one a sobering signpost of morality and duty and the other a laidback lover of leisure.
But Murray’s portrayal of Baloo is perhaps the first place the film’s identity crisis rears its head. The Jungle Book’s whimsical homage to the animated predecessor sits in uncomfortable combination with the intensely realistic visuals that perhaps would belong better in a darker adaptation of Kipling’s stories. The overall effect lands somewhere in the middle—not quite the musical, lighthearted original; not quite a convincing, gritty reimagining of Mowgli’s story. Baloo is the first odd note in this chorus; his bumbling, con-man like charm translates over pretty much exactly from the original. Yet in the otherwise very serious setting in the realistic Indian jungle, the lighthearted American feel of his character singing “Bare Necessities” seems somehow out of place.
Or take the sequence where the king of the monkeys kidnaps Mowgli and attempts to pry from him the secret of “man’s red flower”—fire—in exchange for a Mafioso-like offer of “protection.” The threateningly lifelike orangutan Gigantopithecus King Louie (Christopher Walken) sits enthroned in the dingy ruins of an ancient pagan temple, surrounded by the faded images of deadly Indian gods, fruit, and human paraphernalia in various states of decay, as one might expect in, say, a serious set-piece in Indiana Jones. In this setting, it ultimately comes across as oddly disconcerting—not a delightful throwback to the original—when he suddenly breaks into a swingy, doo-woppish half-rap, half-song version of “I Wanna Be Like You,” surrounded by screechy, non-musical monkeys. The overall effect is much more disorienting than charming.
By thus trying to blend the childish fun of the original with a more gritty vibe, the film undermines its own power to convince the audience. When Mowgli outruns the realistically deadly Shere Khan, adroitly maneuvers a heart-pounding encounter with stampeding water buffalo in a muddy ravine, and then survives a massive landslide all in a row, with apparently only a scratch or two—the audience may feel that the powerfully realistic animal images popping off the screen somehow don’t jive with the cartoonish sequence of events.
Perhaps the clearest instance of how this film apparently wants the best of both worlds is in the unexpected failure to resolve Mowgli’s situation. [Spoiler alert!] The resolution leaves him in an obviously unsustainable place, back among the animals and trying to preserve the fantasy appeal of a man living in harmony with beasts—the laid back ideal of the original “Bare Necessities.” This leaves unresolved the movie’s stated conflict: that Mowgli ultimately needs to find a people of his own, and that he cannot do that among the beasts. As in Genesis, there is not a fitting mate for him among them—something the original Disney film at least nodded to in the end.
Still, this dissonance of tone may be overlooked by hardcore Disney fans. The fact remains that the solid voice acting, fast-paced plotline, winning central performance of Sethi, and the stunning visuals of the film (not least of all exemplified in the ingenious credits sequence) alone make it worth a watch. It may not be a perfect reimagining of the classic Disney tale; but the bare necessities of audience fun are certainly there.
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