You approach the latest version of The Jungle Book with a lot of scepticism. The Disney cartoon version, the last the union hatin’, commie hatin’ Walt worked on, was a glorious concoction of eccentric characters and terrific songs, songs you could hum and whistle all day long – a classic of the genre. I can still remember the words of ‘I wanna Be Like You’, and ‘The Bare Necessities’, and the happiness they spread as you left the cinema.
Why do we need another Jungle Book, and from the same Disney stable?
Well, to begin with its live action plus computerisation. (My long short-hand for digital imaging.) We know how far computerisation has moved on in gigantic leaps and bounds since the first Toy Story. Is there a Hollywood film that doesn’t employ some computer element these days?
Second, it presents us with a much darker tale, or series of tales – the book is exactly that, a group of unconnected tales – a story closer to Rudyard Kipling’s original, the one that says man is the greatest threat to the animal kingdom, and to himself. And three, there’s a new generation of cinemagoers who never saw the cartoon version, so there’s more money Disney can extract from wallets. It got my money. £25 for two tickets and two 3-D glasses. Sheesh! Make it just one scoop of ice-cream, thanks.
Actually, there’s been half-a-dozen versions of the book: Disney has already given us a live-action version in 1994, with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, a sort of action man that bore little resemblance to the original tales. Then there’s the very colonial English one, Alexander and Zoltan Korda’s magical 1942 film starring the young Indian actor Sabu; that one was even less faithful to Kipling. Research unearthed a Chuck Jones cartoon, and a Russian adaptation. I’m sure the Japanese had a go at it, plus there are soppy sequels you see pop up on Sunday television, kid’s hour.
Readers will find this difficult to believe, apparently Warner Bros is working on its own version, a typical profligate Hollywood decision. It goes like this: suited executive to assembled in-house producers, “Whatever that damn competitor studio is making, we make it but better.” Unfortunately Warner has signed up that over-rated Cumberbatch as a voice-over character.
Let’s get one thing sorted. Rudyard Kipling wasn’t full-blooded English. I’ve heard him called Scots, and referred to as of Scots parentage. He was born in Bombay. When still a sprat, (am too lazy to check age) he and his sister were taken to friends in Southsea, Portsmouth, for their early schooling. His mother was Scottish, (MacDonald) his father English, a cousin of Prime Minister Baldwin. That places Kipling in the middle of England’s colonial empire, and his outlook on life too. (Orwell spotted that well before me.) At 41 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. As the years go by Kipling’s place in the pantheon of novelists gets rewritten and reworked. He remains something of a genius, but not an intellectual.
The new Jungle Book alludes carefully, and overly-cautiously to the central theme of Kipling’s tales. Mowgli, and man in general, is a sure fire, (pun intended) threat to the natural environment. In that, and every jungle tree felled for logging or maize farms, Kipling was spot on. That is why the animals in Kipling’s tales avoid eating humans, and why the wolves nurture the parentless Mowgli: “Man-killing means, sooner or later, the arrival of white men on elephants, with guns, and hundreds of brown men with gongs and rockets and torches. Then everybody in the jungle suffers.” The animals might represent indigenous jungle tribes, their fear of the white man so ingrained.
The animals represent a staid, settled way of life, full of comforting repetition. They dislike Mowgli using ‘man tricks’, such as a coconut shell to gather water and drink from it. The animals revel in doing what nature programmes them to do to survive, the only break from that strict convention when they all use the waterhole during the drought season. No one is allowed to eat anybody else. Drink first, eat later.
Mowgli represents childhood innocence and purity to us, but to the animals in the story he is a symbol of the evil humans do. If only the new iteration followed that line to the bitter end. It doesn’t. Instead, about half-way through, it loses confidence in its theme and becomes a series of quotations and riffs from Disney’s earlier cartoon, even to the point of incorporating a couple of songs. Big mistake.
In fact, the film’s second greatest weakness, (I’ll come to the first shortly) is the director’s lack of courage in his convictions. He begins determined to show us the book’s tales, warts and all, but then takes fright, falling back on a spree of quotations from other movies any television commercials director would be proud. That’s an ad-man’s gimmick – shape taste and opinion by lifting a familiar, original idea from a film, a book, or a song, and weave the product into it.
In this Jungle Book the Orangutan is depicted as bit Marlon Brando as a Mafia godfather, bit Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. (King Louie is a Disney invention.) And the man speaking his voice is none other than the permanently sinister actor Christopher Walken.
The first error of judgement, a serious one sad to say, is the choice of actor for Mowgli. Is he from Brooklyn? I think we should be told. He’s of American Indian stock but not Indian or Pakistani. For the story to have real credence, and to enrapture the world’s biggest cinema makers, India, he really ought to be. Has ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ not taught Disney anything? Mowgli as played by the wide eyed Neel Sethi is just about competent.
The Mowgli we are given is too city savvy. He’s terrific at running. The film calls for lots for running and leaping and jumping. He’s got that nailed. But there’s something distinctly phony about a chatty kid in the jungle brought up by wolves saying, “Cool” in an American accent at things he enjoys. And I’m sure I heard someone say, “Am good to go”.
Why the remake?
The story itself isn’t dramatically different from the familiar Disney animated film, just darker. In one sudden moment, for example, an animal is dispatched in an instant by a predatory beast. But the film isn’t adventurous in ideas.
Our hero Mowgli is a young boy who’s been raised by a family of wolves ever since the black panther Bagheera, (Ben Kingsley) found him abandoned. Mowgli learns wolf etiquette and rules, like never to stray from the pack. The pack is everything. Work as a team, eat as a team, live as a team. “The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” Had old Walt had been around the ‘pack’ would be white, Presbyterian, and Republican.
That communal imperative of the wolves is threatened by tiger Shere Khan, (Idris Elba, flavour of the year, voicing yet another animal) who demands Mowgli is turned over to him, or else. The tiger’s vendetta is personal: “Does my face not remind you of what a grown man can do?” he sneers, pointing to his scared face and one eye. And that, as we all know, is essentially the tale that links all the episodes, including encounters with dream-like brooding elephants, until Shere Khan is defeated. Elba as Khan sounds okay, but you wish for the effortless malevolence of the late great George Sanders.
Once the story begins in earnest it’s a parade of star names – Bagheera the panther – Ben Kingsley; Kaa the python – Scarlett Johansson, who seems to have cornered the market in disembodied characters; Baloo the bear – Bill Murray; and King Louie – Christopher Walken, a gigantopithecus lording over a small army of various species of monkey. Murray made little impact on me. I didn’t find his interpretation in the least funny. His lethargic screen persona is lost as a plain voice. It has no warmth.
The visuals win the day
The wonder of this Jungle Book lies in the truly amazing state-of-the-art computer visuals. The animals in particular, slither, hop, walk, lope, and gallop as you know them to do in real life. The birds are just as plausible in flight. As a director, Jon Favreau, (an actor between times) has a good track record of holding out attention with special effects when the story is weak, his Marvel comics Iron Man proof positive. In camera work there’s lots to remind us of the skill of Spielberg.
The Jungle Book is well-paced, visually arresting, and light in tone. It won’t scare children too much. How much it will inculcate a respect for our fellow creatures is another matter. For a film in which we see animals who eat other animals it doesn’t linger on death. That’s something children learn about the first time they see a dead bird, cat or dog in the street.
- Star Rating: Three stars
- Duration: 105 minutes
- Director: Jon Favreau
- Starring: Neel Sethi, Christopher Walken, Bill Murray, Idris Elba