Disney’s new The Jungle Book is the second film in a row from Jon Favreau that makes me want to hug the director. It couldn’t be more different from his last, the endearing if foul-mouthed indie comedy Chef, about the relationship between a struggling culinary artist and his pre-teen son. I loved Chef, but of course I couldn’t watch it with my own pre-teen children. Now he has made a film I can’t wait to see with them.
It’s not just that The Jungle Book is smart, thrilling, funny and gorgeous, though goodness knows that’s enough. It’s also a film of a kind that’s almost unheard of these days: an old-fashioned family adventure that’s funny without devolving into camp or comedy, thrilling and even scary without being dark or subversive. There is scarcely anything in the last decade or even more to which I can even compare it.
What I can say is that, like Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella last year, The Jungle Book offers a lavish new reimagining of a beloved story, blending elements from the original literary source material with the classic animated Disney version. The effect is to reaffirm the Disney canon without just rehashing it on the one hand or undermining it like Maleficent and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland on the other. (It’s not, for instance, some tendentious anti-colonial tract to make us feel guilty about ever liking The Jungle Book in the first place.)
As sheer spectacle, The Jungle Book is an immersive, exhilarating experience. The filmmakers whip up a lavish storybook vision of India that is heightened and intensified, utterly persuasive in rich detail yet also dreamlike. Young Mowgli (Neel Sethi) running through the treetops at times evokes James Cameron’s Avatar; other moments hint at The Lion King. Conventional distinctions between live action and animation are irrelevant; the film’s jungle world is almost entirely digital, as are the utterly tangible talking animals. Among less showy yet technically most astonishing moments, watch as Mowgli perches on the belly of the bear Baloo (Bill Murray) as they float down the river, singing, yes, The Bare Necessities. See how Baloo’s hair ripples under the water’s surface. It’s an effect more seamless and persuasive than the mauling in The Revenant, even though this bear is singing a Disney song in Bill Murray’s voice.
While the basic story structure reflects the beloved 1967 cartoon, screenwriter Justin Marks draws a bit more on Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli stories about a feral boy raised in the jungle by wolves. Mowgli’s wolf family, particularly his mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), is more important than in the Disney cartoon. I love how the opening lines of Kipling’s Law for the Wolves are chanted and recited (with slight adaptations) by the wolves:
Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back;
For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.
An important early scene is set during a Water Truce, during the drought between rainy seasons. When the water recedes far enough that the Peace Rock emerges, a moratorium on hunting takes effect among the jungle animals, for “drinking comes before eating.” Even the vicious tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) honors the Water Truce, at least for the moment. These story elements help make the world of The Jungle Book more than just an exotic setting; it’s a cultural world unto itself, with broad rules and local subcultures, like the farmyard world of Babe or the leporine world of Watership Down. There is even, in a striking moment, an allusion to an elephant creation-myth in one of Kipling’s tales, though the moment itself is unlike anything I’m aware of in Kipling. Far from the buffoonish, burlesque figures of the Disney cartoon, Favreau’s elephants appear as majestic, solemn lords of the jungle; as they pass by, as dignified as a procession of elves in The Lord of the Rings, the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) kneels low and even tells Mowgli to bow his head and show respect.
“The elephants created this jungle,” the panther whispers. “They made all that belongs: the mountains, the trees, the birds in the trees.” And then he adds, significantly, “But they did not make you. That is why you must go.” The semi-religious reverence of this moment is remarkable; it is not, to say the least, a tone often found in a Hollywood family film, or in any Hollywood film. Bagheera’s line also highlights a central theme in this Jungle Book: how Mowgli’s humanity sets him apart from the animals around him.
From the start, Mowgli’s “man tricks” create a rift between him and the creatures of the animal world. Though raised from infancy by wolves, Mowgli is by nature a maker and user of tools, something his adoptive family neither understands nor accepts. Particularly around other animals, the wolf chief Akelah (Giancarlo Esposito) exhorts the man-cub to keep his literally unnatural ways to himself — but, lacking the natural gifts of the jungle beasts, he can’t help finding his own ways of doing things. The cardinal “man trick,” of course, is mastery of fire, a theme that plays a far more important role here than in the Disney cartoon (where, the King Louie tangent aside, Mowgli’s use of fire at the climax plays like a serendipitous afterthought). The jungle animals, of course, fear fire, including Bagheera and Baloo as well as Mowgli’s wolf pack, so that if Mowgli becomes a master of fire, even to defeat Shere Khan, he must forever leave his friends behind. This leaves the film with two obvious possible resolutions: one predictable and one revisionist. Surprisingly, the filmmakers find a third way. It’s neither the Disney ending nor what Kipling wrote — which are not the same thing — but it allows Mowgli to take a significant step forward in claiming his heritage, while leaving the door very much open to a sequel (reportedly already in the works).
On the other hand, when Louie (Christopher Walken!) breaks out into I Wanna Be Like You, well, in the first place there’s only one Louis Prima, and in the second place, it’s precisely when The Jungle Book is most indebted to the animated version that it feels most uneven. Likewise, much as I admire the river-floating scene, I didn’t need to hear The Bare Necessities, though I can understand the filmmakers feeling that the audience will expect these numbers. Thankfully, Johansson barely alludes to Kaa’s Trust in Me (though she sings a full version over the eye-popping end credits). And those Liverpudlian vultures, with their halfhearted Beatles vibe and barbershop harmonies, are nowhere to be seen (or heard). Of all the voice casting, probably the most is riding on Murray. Needless to say, this Baloo is closer in spirit to Disney’s laidback jungle bum, voiced by Phil Harris, than to Kipling’s teacher of jungle lore, making Murray a no-brainer — though of course he can’t touch the characteristic growl that made Harris (also Little John in Disney’s Robin Hood) such a natural bear.
The Jungle Book isn’t perfect, but it’s a joy to watch, and in some ways it’s a wonder that it exists at all. It would be nice to think that, along with Cinderella, it marks the beginning of a trend, and that this might bode well for next year’s Beauty and the Beast. And yet next month Disney is releasing the Burton-produced sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass, so who knows. It seems strange to cheer a major media empire for sometimes celebrating rather than trashing its own legacy, but such are the cultural stakes with many of the stories retold over the years by the Mouse House.
A reader writes: “‘The elephants created the jungle’ is not ‘semi-religious’ as you say. It is, in fact, blasphemous. You say such ideas are not ‘often found in a Hollywood family film.’ I disagree. Blasphemy is typical in most Hollywood films.”
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.