Indian-born Rudyard Kipling may have coined the phrase “white man’s burden,” but the question has never been fully resolved as to whether he had genuine empathy for the cultures subjugated by the British Empire or was merely an apologist for imperialism and racism. Even Indian nationalists didn’t agree. Now, as his writings make their way through sheer longevity into the public domain, we’re bound to see more discussion of his literary, philosophic and political legacy – and more movies made based on his adventure stories written for children. One need not espouse Kipling’s unabashed admiration of Englishness to concede that the man was a storyteller of the first order.
At the moment, cinemas all over are screening Walt Disney Pictures’ “live-action” reboot of their 1967 animated hit The Jungle Book. The description is a bit of misnomer, in that the new movie relies so heavily on CGI-created animal characters and environments that only three of its actors loaned more than their voices to its creation – and two of those only have the teensiest of flashback scenes. Neel Sethi, the young actor who plays the feral child Mowgli, shot all of his scenes indoors in a Los Angeles studio; the magical world that surrounds him, and the friends and foes who fill it with drama, all come out of an electronic box. (It seems reasonable to expect something similar from the next iteration of Jungle Book, due for release in 2018, considering that it’s being directed by the king of motion-capture himself, Andy Serkis.)
That’s not entirely a bad thing. In creating his own Indian jungle, the intent of director Jon Favreau was reportedly to approximate the look of the wilds of the planet Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar. And to a large degree he captured it – especially in his visual incorporation of the multilayered world of a rainforest biosphere, from ground to canopy. How different species are able to travel through it even becomes a minor plot point. Unlike Pandora, there are no otherworldly phosphorescent plants populating this jungle, and I would’ve liked to see a bit more detail of its bird, insect and flower inhabitants; but it’s still rather breathtaking to look at. Like Avatar, The Jungle Book was very deliberately made to exploit the potential of modern 3-D technology, and it’s one of the few films I’ve seen lately that is absolutely worth the extra few bucks to rent those goggles.
As for verisimilitude to its forebears, the movie is an odd hybrid: truer in many respects to the original Kipling tales, and considerably darker than the animated version. Very small children will need their hands held through some rather terrifying scenes, such as one straight out of Revenant where the hero is swept by a mudslide into a raging river. But it also recycles some of the “beloved” tropes added by Disney, including three of the songs from the 1967 flick.
That will prove an attraction to many who grew up on the earlier version, but for this reviewer’s money, I could’ve done without the song-and-dance numbers. In fact, the scene where Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) renders Terry Gilkyson’s “The Bare Necessities” is visually one of the weakest in the whole movie: His singing head and the belly on which Mowgli is loafing as they float down a placid stream don’t quite appear to belong to the same animal. I found Dr. John’s New Orleans version, played over the closing credits, much more enjoyable.
The other song incorporated into the narrative, the Sherman brothers’ “I Wan’na Be Like You,” also seems expendable, though at least the King Louie character (entirely fabricated by Disney; Kipling’s Bandar-log or monkey people were a definitively and absurdly anarchistic animal subculture) is more scary here than goofy. Someone at Disney has apparently gotten the message since 1967 that there are no native orangutans in the Indian subcontinent, so they made King Louie (Christopher Walken) a gigantopithecus, who at least left some fossils behind there.
Turning an ape into a proto-hominid is an interesting choice, if you’re going to keep the character in at all; the episode in which Mowgli is carried off by a huge troop of monkeys, macaques and baboons is one of the most frightening in the books – not least because their behavior is in many ways disturbingly humanlike. That theme carries through in the scene where the boy raised by wolves approaches the “man-village” to steal fire, the “red flower.” There’s no alluring young girl to tempt the lad in this version – only men who seem alien and dangerous. And to the pristine rainforest environment, they certainly are. Even the ancient stone carvings on the ruined temple that is the Bandar-log’s lair depict acts of human war and oppression. The message is subtle, but it’s there.
There are some other improvements over the 1967 movie: Most of the depictions of animals seem more naturalistic, less cartoony. This is especially noticeable with the elephants, who are serene, distant, godlike terraforming beings here, rather than a ridiculous brigade of Raj-era British military types. Murray’s Baloo is a bit more developed as a character: an actively scheming skiver in the Tom Sawyer fence-painting mode rather than the simple laid-back hipster voiced by jazzman Phil Harris in the earlier version. Kaa the snake is scarier with Scarlett Johannson’s sultry voice than he ever was with Sterling Holloway’s squeaky one, especially when she gets to sing Kaa’s hypnotic song, “Trust in Me,” over the closing credits. Ben Kingsley as Mowgli’s strict black panther guardian Bagheera, Idris Elba as the villainous tiger Shere Khan and Lupita Nyong’o as Mowgli’s valiant wolf mother Raksha are all in fine voice and round out their characters as best an actor may in such a simple fable.
All told, The Jungle Book 2016 is the sort of remake that restores one’s faith in the wisdom of doing movie remakes at all. The House of Mouse has done a fine, handsome job here. It will be very interesting to see if Andy Serkis can outdo it.