The new Jungle Book movie takes place once upon a time in India, in the deep and the dark of the woods, and far, far away from producer Disney’s animated 1967 version of Rudyard Kipling’s nineteenth-century stories.
Jon Favreau’s live action version, based on a smart script by Justin Marks, sets out its intentions right at the beginning. Disney’s familiar fairy-tale kingdom logo neatly morphs into a jungle whose calm is disrupted by a boy in a red loincloth tearing through the brush and sailing through the trees. But despite the presence of talking animals and the knee-high livewire hero Mowgli, this is no cutesy Disneyfied version of life in the wild. Danger lurks everywhere, size is everything, and Mowgli must balance his human side with his jungle-honed survival instincts if he is to escape death.
In one telling scene that upends the Disney ethic of anthromorphising animals, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) offers a piece of fruit to a bushy-tailed creature, oblivious to the fact that the rest of the pack has stolen his stash behind his back.
Marks’s screenplay is based on stories featured in Kipling’s Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book and comes close to capturing the spirit of the nineteenth-century tales. (The stories Mowgli’s Brothers and How Fear Came are among the references.) The movie recreates the legend of Mowgli, the feral child who is brought up by a wolf pack and becomes the target of the tiger Shere Khan, as an action spectacle with breathtaking visual effects and utterly believable computer-generated beasts.
The earliest screen version, made in 1942 with Indian actor Sabu Dastagir, had only one talking creature (the python Kaa). After Disney’s animated version in 1967, the themes of survival, the tussle between nature and nurture, and the relationship between humans and the wild were reduced to a colourful and cheerful adventure of talking, singing and dancing animals and birds that pranced around the forest for our pleasure.The animated version is a treat, but one aimed at children. Elements of that movie are present in the characters of the lazy but loving Baloo the bear (voiced by Bill Murray), the wise and paternalistic panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), the nasty Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) and the sinister python Kaa, whose gender change is an excuse to allow Scarlett Johansson’s silken voice to boom out of the screen.
Mowgli’s encounter with Baloo leads to some of the rare moments of levity. When Mowgli, who doesn’t know what a song is, rattles off the wolf pack’s code to Baloo as an example, the bear is unimpressed. That’s not a song, that’s propaganda, he says.
A great deal has changed since 1967. The woods are more frightening than previously imagined. Apart from their ability to speak in American accents, the animals are straight out of a nature documentary. Mowgli is a resourceful child as in the stories, putting his hands to good use to give Baloo his honey fix and rescuing a baby elephant from a pit. King Louie is no longer a belly-scratching hedonistic orangutan but an unnerving King Kong-like hulk who rules over his simian kingdom from the ruins of an abandoned temple. If Shere Khan wants Mowgli dead to avenge his injuries at the hands of humans, King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken) demands that Mowgli fetch him the “red flower” – the jungle’s phrase for fire, the one weapon that humans have against wild creatures.
The most scintillating character is the jungle itself – a massive set enhanced by fabulous visual effects that throbs with beauty, risk, danger and grace. The Jungle Book is filled with eye-popping sequences that rely heavily on computer-generated imagery. Whether it’s the detailing of the animals, right down to the scales on an armadillo, the evocation of the forest’s lushness, or the identifiably Indian colour palette, The Jungle Book never falters in creating a fictional world that seems as though it might actually exist.
The occasional overuse of the background music, the camaraderie between Mowgli and his wolf brother Gray (voiced by Brighton Rose), and the banter between Mowgli and Baloo are vintage Disney. Director Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man movies, and writer Marks steer clear from the moralising and colonial subtext that ran through Kipling’s stories. In their attempts to deliver a visual experience that is best experienced on a 3D-enabled IMAX screen, they have stripped the story of context, complexity and the narrative layers that might have elevated the movie.
The Jungle Book is always stunning to look at, and its economical 105-minute running time adequately showcases Mowgli’s first steps towards realising his inner potential and coming closer to his human self. But the film misses out on the opportunity to provide a compelling reason for Mowgli’s resurrection.
One message does emerge in a movie that resists semonising. Mowgli has returned at a time when wildlife is under threat across the globe, the tiger is on the backfoot in India, and forest cover is being depleted at alarming levels. It’s telling that the jungle that the “man-cub” romps through can only be created artificially.