The Jungle Book
The Jungle Book is an adaptation of Kipling’s tale of the man cub, Mowgli, brought up by a pack of wolves in an Indian jungle. I’m tempted to call Jon Favreau’s remake of Walt Disney’s 1967 picture a masterclass in tone and atmosphere manipulation but I suspect my relatively low expectations greatly elevated this film. That said the tonal decisions Favreau makes set this film apart from its 60s counterpart and ostensibly justify a remake.
Mowgli is played by first time actor, Neel Sethi and the narrative pretty much toes the line we are familiar with save for some tweaks necessitated by the feel this film strives for. Mowgli has known nothing but life as a wolf but as he ages, the distinction between man and animal becomes clear. The differences are not just limited to Mowli’s wanting athleticism relative to his fellow wolves but he is also becoming increasingly savvy in his manoeuvrings. When everyone laps water from a river, he has a makeshift pail to fetch his fill. This isn’t the wolf way though, as is hammered home by his guardian panther, Bhageera (Ben Kingsley).
Given my non acquaintance with the Kipling source material, I can't tell if the edicts we encounter in this film are derived from him or just touches from Favreau and the script. For example, there is some moving reverence for elephants in this ecosystem. We also see animals on different levels of the food chain declare a special truce during a drought so they can all drink in peace from a special enduring stream. There is some warm grace to be found in seeing pacifism and order take control of the animal kingdom in times of adversity. The paradox here however is, chaos beckons when the prosperity of the rains return. Enter Idris Elba’s Shere Khan.
Shere Khan is evil. We do not doubt that. He reeks of violence and is dripping with menace as evidenced by the vultures that usher him in. Even in the midst of the truce, the other animals fear him. He has history and beef with Mowgli. He wants him dead. We sense a distrust of the human condition as his reasoning but Shere Khan also kills for sport, we are told. He gives the wolf pack an ultimatum – he wants the man cub delivered to him when the truce ends. This forces Mowgli to make the difficult choice of leaving his family to the safety of the human village under the watchful eyes of Bhageera. It is at this point the film transitions into The Revenant for kids – sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Things get rough for Mowgli, both physically and emotionally and kudos to the young Sethi for selling us on this character’s arch. He comes off as quite annoying at times but he has commendable control of his emotions considering he was probably acting against a green dummy. After Mowgli departs for the safety of the human village, the film feels a tad lighter largely owing to the introduction of Baloo (Bill Murray). Baloo in his languid splendour is the conduit of most of this film’s laughs and there is impeccable witty chemistry between him and Mowgli.
I was worried about the handling for Baloo and whether his buoyant personality will translate into a realistically rendered CGI bear but Murray’s voice talent and the sweet dialogue quickly quelled the fears. On the topic of voice talents, Christopher Walken is also great as King Louie who has the workings of a crime boss owing to his accent as he expresses his desire to be “more like you”.
The screening I was in had a ton of young kids (a chunk of them of Indian descent) and I did worry the tone was a little too heavy for them save for the morals this film arrives at. It kind of reminded me of The Lion King which had no business being called a children’s film in my opinion given how violent and emotionally charged it was. We see something similar with the vicious battles involving the likes of Bhageera and Shere Khan in set pieces akin to The Lion King. Even the time we spend King Louie is underpinned with some creepy menace.
Funny enough Favreau opts for a resolution packing a lesser emotional punch than the 60’s version but I guess some release was in order and the kids are required to leave the screening with a strong message. The one they will get here borders on strength in unity along with harmony with nature packaged in quite energetic, exciting storytelling that manages to look quite authentic despite its heavy CGI foundations.