The Jungle Book is one of my favourite Disney movies. So of course I was among the first in line to buy a ticket when the Jon Favreau directed live action adaptation was slated at Kitag’s site. Going in, I was excited. Coming out, I am very confused.
When I was a child, I watched The Jungle Book so many times in two languages that to this day, I can sing along to most songs in both. Not that anyone should be subjected to my singing, but in theory, I could sing along. When I was a child, Baloo was my favourite because he sang the greatest song.
So I was both scared and excited when the capital-T They announced that they were making a live-action adaptation of the stories by Rudyard Kipling. How many times in recent memory has there been a remake or a reboot that completely bombed? Sometimes, the movies weren’t even bad, but just flat and bland. Like a beer soda that’s been opened and in the sun for an entire afternoon. On the other hand, Jon Favreau as a director is a good choice. And surely, all people involved are aware or just how big a significance The Jungle Book has in our culture.
Here we go.
The movie opens with Mowgli (Neel Sethi) racing the wolf pack he was raised by after Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) found him abandoned in the jungle. I was blown away immediately. Not only do the wolves, Bagheera and the wholly artificial jungle – the entire movie was shot in downtown Los Angeles – look amazing, but Neel Sethi is a dead ringer for Mowgli in both the iconic animated movie and for a local of the area the story is set in.
But I’m not being given much time to revel in this fantastic world. There’s a plot that needs progressing after all. And progressing it does, at breakneck speed. During the first half of the amazingly pretty movie, basically every character speaks in exposition. The turning point where exposition switches to actual characteristics and finally gives us a moment to really take in everything we see and feel with the characters – the way I’ve done so many times with them in the classic animated movie – is when Mowgli meets Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) during the maybe three minutes of exposition she gets to spout.
Baloo to the Rescue
And that’s when it hit me: Nobody sings in this movie.
In fact, everything is pretty damn grim. Sure, it all looks incredibly pretty, but it all has a very cynical and dark tone to it. The air of lightness that made the animated movie so delightful, emotionally relatable and an all-around fun trip is gone. It’s replaced by amazing CGI that only very rarely looks awkward and stilted and characters telling other characters what they can’t do for a number of reasons. Mowgli can’t do his tricks, because that’s not the way a wolf is raised. Animals can’t hunt because the law says drinking is above eating in the dried out jungle. The young runt of the litter can’t act up because if he does, the runt gets eaten. Mowgli can’t stay in the jungle because Shere Khan (Idris Elba) is after him.
Then comes Baloo (Bill Murray), the best bear that animation has ever seen. He’s by far the most interesting character in the new movie. The animals of the jungle know him as an opportunistic, greedy and egoistic but very lazy bear. But he undeniably has a heart of gold. From the very get go when he’s essentially just using Mowgli to get to his prized honey. It’s very obviously a con man, or bear, but he’s not actively working against anything. He’s working for things and he’s ready and willing to share the spoils of his cons with his buddies.
Baloo proves that there’s still value in trust and things that might not be exactly according to laws and decrees of the elders, but a bit of healthy rebellion might be good. Use your ingenuity, be brave, be creative… don’t follow the pack. And with that, Baloo enables Mowgli to look past his existence as a pretend wolf, because a recurring theme is that he’s just not a wolf but forbidden to use his smarts and wit to get around these limitations.
Baloo sings. Finally.
It’s also the entry of Baloo that allows the movie to blossom into a magical adventure that can be enjoyed by a target group that honestly confuses me.
Who Was This Made For?
I am very confused as to who the target audience of this film is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic film that I enjoyed. It was very, very well made and I would never have guessed that Neel Sethi – who in most scenes is the only real thing – at the tender age of 13 carries an entire film. Seriously, the makers of this movie have found a child actor who has not acted in anything but a short movie three years ago can carry a film of this magnitude and size.
When I hear Jungle Book, I think of something that I would show to my children to teach that by their own ingenuity and their own creativity, they might hit some obstacles along the way, but they can find or make their own place in the world. That’s the main point of the 1967 animated movie. While Mowgli ends up in the Man-Village in the end, he goes there by his own volition. He chooses to go there. He is the way he is, but he uses his being to find his own way.
In this version, Mowgli fights for his home, his identity and his place among the jungle animals. He defends his place, starting off as a victim and ending as a firestarter and murderer. The message here is clear: Mowgli was right all along, complete and perfect as a being and everyone else must be show this by violence and displays of power that everyone wants to suppress. And by the end, he has subjected all other animals to his will. Shere Khan even remarks upon this.
So I definitely wouldn’t show this to my children. Because not only does it send a message I can’t entirely agree with, but it’s also incredibly scary and violent. And this is a guy liking horror movie, the occasional bit of gratuitous violence. The main culprit here is Shere Khan. He’s beautifully animated. Seriously. And he’s wonderfully menacing, a very believable villain. He is, however, incredibly scary, what with the movie’s insistence on jump scares. All of a sudden, you have an incredibly scare tiger face jump at the screen. And it’s so very beautiful. But scary.
And then Shere Khan bites Baloo. At that moment, my heart sank. The hero of my childhood, my favourite character in this movie. Dead! Because the tiger got the friendly bear right in the jugular. Oh my God. I know I would have cried if I was a child watching this.
Of course, Baloo survives, because in a very weird decision, the movie shies away from showing blood and it avoids mentioning the word death. A line in the movie is – and I quote – “Baloo! I thought you were gone!” when it was thought that the bear had died. On the other hand, the makers really did pay attention to every bit of detail. When Mowgli is being abducted and taken to King Louie’s (Christopher Walken) palace, he has scratches in the shape of monkey hands on his body. He gets banged up by his actions and heals up again. He has a scar on his shoulder that I think just might be actor Neel Sethi’s own and a scar on his chest that keeps moving ever so slightly between shots.
So as an adult, I feel insulted in my perceived inability to deal with death and as a child, I would be scared and scarred for life.
All in all, The Jungle Book is a very, very pretty movie made by a lot of people who very obviously cared about the material. It looks exactly the way I hoped it would look and the CGI only looks unreal in very few scenes. It sends a few weird messages, it’s cynical and grim, made for neither children nor adults. Still, you should go see it. It’s an experience. Technologically, this movie is an achievement beyond compare and a joy to watch, as is Neel Sethi, even if the script occasionally doesn’t carry them well.