It's clever, but is it Art?
Regular readers may be a little surprised to find a mainstream Disney family film popping up on a blog which is, more often than not, just a little bit more niche, if not actually obscure. then again, sometimes you're just out contemplating what film to see with a person of somewhat gentler tastes. 'Okay, so there's a political thriller about the ethical considerations of using drone strikes against terrorists, or a musical about talking animals,' I said, leaving the choice up to them. So Jon Favreau's new take on The Jungle Book it was.
I suspect that the reason many people are so familiar with The Jungle Book – surely Rudyard Kipling's best-known work, to modern audiences – is the simple fact of the existence of Wolfgang Reitherman's fully-animated 1967 adaptation. Certainly it has a very special place in my own memory, for all that I didn't actually see it in its entirety until I was 19 – a fairly sumptuous storybook illustrated with pictures from the film was one of my fondest possessions as a small child, and I recall painstakingly copying out many of the backgrounds, let alone the main characters. So, as you might expect, I was even more dubious about this semi-remake than usual.
You probably know the story: Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a young lad who has been raised by wolves, so to speak... no, hang on, he's literally been raised by wolves, in a reassuringly non-specific South Asian jungle of some kind (everyone calls it a jungle rather than a rainforest throughout). Mowgli hasn't quite managed to fit in with the wolves, but soon he has more serious concerns as the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), undisputed apex predator of the area, learns of his existence and makes it very clear that man-cub is on his own personal menu. Mowgli's mentor, the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), decides that the only thing to do is for him to go back to live amongst other humans – but along the way Mowgli encounters the extremely laid-back bear Baloo, who suggests there may be another, much less energy-intensive option. But Shere Khan is on his trail and has no intention of letting his prey escape...
The first thing I suppose one should say about the new Jungle Book is that, at its heart, it does seem to have a sincere desire to respect Rudyard Kipling and his original stories. These are rather darker and more serious than you might expect if all you know is the Reitherman movie – they read not entirely unlike a rather more erudite and polished precursor to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels (I feel compelled to share with you Kipling's claim that Burroughs wrote the first Tarzan just to see 'how bad a book he could write and get away with it').
The virtually non-stop near-photorealistic CGI of the new Jungle Book allows the film to have moments of gravity and seriousness without simply coming across as weird – these are about as convincing as talking CGI animals get. Shere Khan, the main villain, is genuinely impressive and genuinely scary, on the very limit of what you can reasonably include in a family film without drawing accusations of actively seeking to traumatise small children.
So the film tones it all down a bit, and departs quite considerably from Kipling in the process, by turning the levels of cutesiness and sentimentality in many portions of the script up to tooth-rottingly high levels. Not to mention, of course, that most of the animals speak with American accents and using idiomatic American English. The results are, needless to say, a bit difficult to process at first.
If the new Jungle Book struggles to assimilate the competing demands of being faithful to Kipling while staying viable as a family blockbuster, this is before we even consider its somewhat confused relationship with the 1967 film. It goes without saying that this has obviously been a major influence – Mowgli closely resembles his animated counterpart, and the characterisations of Baloo and Bagheera, for instance, owe much more to the previous film's script than to Kipling's writing. The plot follows roughly the same sequence of events and there are numerous moments which I suspect will seem odd and incongruous unless you're aware of the animated version.
Yes, I'm mostly thinking of the songs, which primarily seem to have been included because everyone knows the songs from The Jungle Book and would, presumably, get cross if they weren't in this version. But the fact remains that it is very obvious that they have literally floated in from a different film entirely – Bill Murray's crack at 'The Bare Necessities' seems rather perfunctory, Scarlett Johansson's oddly tepid version of 'Trust in Me' has been banished to the closing credits, and then there's...
Well, there's one moment which defines just how mixed up this version of The Jungle Book is, but it's also the moment which above all others justifies the price of the ticket. Mowgli gets kidnapped by the monkeys of the canopy and dragged off to their lair in a ruined temple. The script refers to them as 'the Bandar-Log', something drawn directly from Kipling, and yet they are still led by King Louie, which is pure Reitherman. This version of King Louie is a hulking, menacing anthropoid of colossal size (he claims to be a gigantopithecus rather than an orangutan, which has supposedly been done in the name of 'realism' – there are no orangs in India – but I suspect is more to help some of the revised lyrics scan better), played, rather in the manner of a mafia don, by Christopher Walken. The whole tone of this sequence is one of threat and jeopardy...
...and then Walken launches into a (it probably goes without saying) very idiosyncratic rendition of 'I wanna be like you', rather in the manner of William Shatner doing one of his dramatic recitations of a pop classic. It is just magnetically bizarre – the weird thing is, I know I would have felt it was a complete chiz if Walken hadn't done the song, but at the same time it just felt horribly wrong to do it in quite this way. A few moments later the same wonderful song is, incomprehensibly, rearranged as a cue to accompany an action sequence. Kipling and the legacy of Reitherman and Jon Favreau's own tendencies as a director of CGI-intensive action movies are engaged in a peculiar three-way battle for supremacy, and I'm still not sure who actually comes out on top.
Still, at least casting Walken as the ape removes any chance of the film being accused of open racism, by sensible reviewers at least: diversity quotas are also surely satisfied by Bagheera being Asian, Shere Khan being black, and Kaa having had a sex change. Modern sensibilities should also be assuaged by the virtually-obligatory insertion of a subtext about environmentalism and protecting the environment.
This finds its culmination in the climax of the film, which is where it comes a little unravelled: Kipling's story is about growing up and taking on responsibility, but you get a strong sense that, thematically, this film would much rather be about the importance of family and friendship and not destroying the environment. I'm not saying the film entirely fails to resolve all of these themes, but it has to put itself through some fairly severe contortions to do so. I was also left very unimpressed with how the film ultimately resolves itself – the priority seems to have been keeping the option of doing a sequel well and truly open, rather than, say, concluding the story in a satisfying way.
This isn't a bad film by any means: it looks sumptuous, the cast do solid work with the roles that have been written for them, and when Favreau is allowed to do one of his big action sequences it is usually pretty good. But the various influences of Kipling, Reitherman, and action-movie doctrine never quite cohere. There are probably enough good bits in The Jungle Book to make it a worthwhile and entertaining watch, but I can't imagine anyone already familiar with the story finding this completely satisfying.