[dir. Jon Favreau; scr. Justin Marks]
Now we must go back to the first tale.
— Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book
This is the story of Mowgli, the man-cub raised by wolves, and his adventures with Baloo the Bear and Bagheera the Black Panther, and Kaa the Python, and the Bandar-log (the monkey people), and Shere Khan the Tiger. It has been told before, and will be told again.
As directed by Jon Favreau and adapted by Justin Marks, the new film balances the primary influence of the 1967 animated feature directed by Wolfgang Reitherman with other elements from Rudyard Kipling’s collections of stories, The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book, along with original material, and the result is something rather wondrous.
From a traditionally animated Disney castle, we pull back into the titular jungle, and a half-remembered overture drifts dreamily along with the river. The opening evokes the immersive multi-plane continuance and depth of Bambi — and that is what is to come: time and the wilderness, fire and water, man and beast, loss and life.
This is a live-action film — in the sense that it stars a human actor, and attempts to resemble a live-action film — but every blade of grass is grown by the artists of effects house MPC (except the monkey sequences, those being in the King Kong, Planet of the Apes Weta wheelhouse). In conjunction with the sound design — every footfall, every crack of a twig and rustle of foliage — this becomes a palpably real world, populated by a multitude of creatures, never not believable.
You could place this film in another Disney tradition: that of the Jolly Holiday and Naboombu sequences of Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks respectively, which naturally had antecedents of their own — Gene Kelly hoofing with elastic Arabian palace guards in the “Sinbad the Sailor” segment of Invitation to the Dance, or Esther Williams swimming with Tom and Jerry and a beret-sporting octopus in a dream sequence in Dangerous When Wet. But the point of those scenes was to place real actors in a clearly fantasy world, the magic being in the interaction; whereas here Favreau brings the two together with no divide.
The digital backlot might be the defining cinematic innovation of the young century. In films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Speed Racer, and TRON: Legacy there was still that feeling of having real people in a fantastical movie universe. The technological limitations enforced interesting artistic choices. Nevertheless, there were limitations. Now, these sorts of visual effects no longer have to be couched in pulp adventure or video game stylisation. One just hopes we don’t sacrifice fantasy on the altar of reality.
(The ubiquity, density, diversity, and reality of the vegetation in The Jungle Book indicates another evolution, beyond Avatar or The Lone Ranger. And SpeedTree software is now used not only in the likes of The Force Awakens and Jurassic World, but for ‘seasonal augmentation’ in something like Spotlight.)
To be believable, there must be imperfection and restraint; hence bespattered lenses, and imitations of real camera techniques. The camera zooms to a cliff face, as if to prove Baloo does his own stunts, or whips around, trying to catch the rapid movements of two big cats in battle. Early on, a virtual timelapse shows drought taking hold of the jungle — more Baraka than blockbuster. It tricks you into thinking you’re watching a David Attenborough programme and not a cartoon.
Of course, it’s not the habitat but its inhabitants that are the movie’s raison d’être. The animal characters in the 1967 film are amongst the most memorable in animation history. They are filled with life. They move loosely, freely — they’re tremendously expressive. But in the interests of believability, the 2016 menagerie mustn’t be too anthropomorphic. They can’t be as expressive — for starters, other animals don’t move their mouths in the same way as humans — and yet their characters come through completely. The reason in no small part being that this film, like its forebear, features a considerably starry voice cast.
There’s great casting all around, with the stars’ personalities projected onto their characters vocally, and by the animators, as in a distinctively Walkenesque narrowing of King Louie’s eyes. Bill Murray’s persona helps create something that isn’t in the shadow of Phil Harris’ iconic turn. Ben Kingsley as Bagheera is absolute perfection. And Lupita N’yongo’s Raksha is an incredibly moving performance. There’s a beautiful line: “mine — mine to me”. In the book, it’s a defiant dismissal of Shere Khan on the night young Mowgli is found. Here, Marks transposes it to an eternal avowal of a mother’s love, upon having to bid farewell to her cub. (There’s a movement of the mother wolf’s ears here which is inexplicably emotional.) Her voice falters as she finishes: “You will always be my son.” Their eyes close, heads touch; Mowgli hugs his mother.
In the 1967 film, Shere Khan doesn’t appear until after the monkey sequences. He’s just talked about. It’s a sort of Western feeling: the word is out — the no-good gunfighter’s heading into town. Here, Shere Khan appears throughout, the screenplay making use of various episodes from the Kipling stories, in slightly different ways, with genuinely well done scenes establishing the tiger’s villainy (such scenes in film and TV are often risibly rote). George Sanders’ Khan exemplified that actor’s urbanity and intelligence; Idris Elba’s mixes in sheer power and rage. The beast is muscular, menacing, compelling.
Kaa (Scarlett Johannson) just has the one scene this time around, with an impressive introduction — the snake’s enormous, endless body slowly slithering through both foreground and background. There’s a flashback: a slit pupil becomes a man, his torch’s flickering light illuminating the cave the eye contains, the cave itself then transforming into a burning red flower. It’s a good way of mixing exposition and suspense — as the story is told, the python’s coils wrap around and around an entranced and unaware Mowgli.
Whereas, for obvious reasons, Zoltan Korda’s 1942 bona fide live action Jungle Book focussed largely on Mowgli’s life with the Man Village, Favreau’s film keeps Man at a distance. In consequence, the 2016 film is more removed from a particular time period. It’s more mythic. Contributing to this feeling are the animals’ slightly enlarged sizes — and to an even greater extent, the extinct megafauna incarnation of King Louie — and a number of monumental long shots: Mowgli and Bagherra small and silhouetted against a gigantic waterfall; the thwarted Shere Khan watching from above as Mowgli escapes with the stampede. Also, the treatment of the elephants here owes more to Hathi’s etiological tale in “How Fear Came” and the wordless ritual of “Toomai of the Elephants”, than the humorous jungle patrol of the 1967 film.
Perhaps the shift in focus away from the village explains the absence of “My Own Home”, possibly the dominant musical motif of the 1967 film, at least for Mowgli’s journey. In its place is a new theme associated with the jungle, the wolves, and law — a thing of sweeping, sweet John Barry beauty. John Debney’s score is rich and full, probably his best work since modern classic Cutthroat Island, and it’s a testament to the emotional power of a truly melodic soundtrack (unfortunately something that stands out in the current landscape). Even more so than the script, the score triumphs with a balance of old (the songs of Terry Gilkyson and the Sherman brothers, George Bruns’ score) and new (including, generally, percussion parts of appealing interest and clarity).
It would be impossible to watch this film and not come away with a new appreciation for just how great a song Gilkyson’s “Bare Necessities” is — whether interpreted as a carefree, jumping New Orleans number, a heart-tugging accent, or a final, awesome statement of identity. Sherman tunes “Trust in Me” and “I Wanna Be Like You” are meanwhile subtly re-purposed for maximum menace in orchestral appearances. The credits include Johansson’s lounge vocals on the former, and Dr. John doing “Bare Necessities”, which is fitting: he recorded “Cruella de Vil” for the credits of 101 Dalmatians, which you could consider the first of the Live Action Remake series.
There’s something vaguely reprehensible about Disney’s current Remake Everything policy, presumably spurred by the success of Alice in Wonderland, part of a wave of fairytale/storybook films, some of which are quite fun, some quite picturesque, and most quite unnecessary. But let’s just look at the Disney ones. There’s the charming Dalmatians. The unfaithful, perhaps necessarily so, but nevertheless likeable Alice. The tonal-spectrum-hopping, weird, messy, pointless Wickedisation that is Maleficent, which is not actually that bad. And the simple, lavish, enchanting Cinderella. (I haven’t seen Alice Through the Looking Glass yet.) Some are better than others, but the one thing they all share is a great score, one that encapsulates and enhances their respective approaches. Debney ensures The Jungle Book is no exception.
It is the first of this unofficial series, however, to embrace the musical (genre) nature of its progenitor (next year’s Beauty and the Beast will be the first full-fledged musical). The first number — Baloo and Mowgli singing “Bare Necessities” — is essential for the connection to the 1967 film, and it’s a shot of jubilation, just when the story demands it. Having the second song (“I Wanna Be Like You”) does leave the movie in a slightly strange halfway position, unfortunately. And with the darker tone of the scene, it’s a more awkward fit. But it’s worth it just for the audible joy, in a new verse or two, of Richard Sherman playing with the word gigantopithecus.
There are a couple of other things that don’t work as well as they could. The action climax rushes a tad through its different beats, then just lags a little whilst setting up its conclusion. (Favreau’s on the record comparing the concepts of fire and power in this movie with the depiction of the one ring in The Lord of the Rings — so the resemblance of the shot of Shere Khan’s defeat to a similar one in Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King is likely intentional.) On the whole, it’s an exciting finale.
Slightly less successful is the scene where Baloo tries to convince Mowgli to return to the Man Village, aiming for something like The Champ (1931) or Camille (1936). As written, this should in theory be a stronger scene than its 1967 equivalent. Perhaps in reaching further it swings and misses. It’s an admirable miss, and it still works fine.
There’s a different ending, too — less Casablanca than before. This version ends not with a sunset, but a new day, which seems right for its particular thematic concerns with identity, belonging, family, jungle law, innovation, man’s relationship with the environment, and so on. As ever, there’s a mix of old and new, the credits featuring the long awaited closing of the titular book which opened the 1967 film, the last personally supervised by Walt Disney. (There’s one especially inspired gag.) No doubt The Second Jungle Book is even now being pulled from the shelf, and dusted off…
People will be retelling these stories for quite some time to come, I’m sure. There’s certainly still room for another adaptation of Mowgli’s adventures that more closely follows Mr Kipling’s plots and characters. And then there are all the Mowgli-less stories, like “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”. “The White Seal” is one that rather suggests itself as a movie.
This review’s just about over, and I’ve forgotten to mention Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli. He doesn’t have the magnetism of Sabu, but, as pretty much the only human on screen, he carries this giant film on his shoulders — no small task.
Yet wouldn’t it have been great if he weren’t the only human on screen? Imagine if they’d done it like The Wizard of Oz… Bill Murray with ears on a headband, Idris Elba in face paint and a stripy top, Scarlett Johansson slithering about in a sleeping bag. With Ben Kinglsey in a black turtleneck, lounging on a tree branch, a tail clipped onto his belt. And Christopher Walken scatting in a fuzzy orange bathrobe. That’s a proper live action Jungle Book movie — just the bare necessities.