dir: Jon Favreau
It may be a remake, but the current incarnation of the Jungle Book playing in cinemas is far more enjoyable and successful than I ever would have thought it deserved to be.
Jon Favreau isn’t really that respected as a director, and is more mocked for his existence as a shorter, fatter version of Vince Vaughn; an actor I have come to truly loathe. I don’t loathe Jon Favreau, in fact I’ve liked most of his flicks except for Chef, which was a terribly self-indulgent mess, I thought. Saying “I thought” at the end of that sentence seems awfully self-indulgent, but, you know what, I’m just trying to keep things conversational, okay?
I think he does okay as a director of comedic – actiony kind of flicks. I wouldn’t want him to direct adaptations of Wuthering Heights or Anna Karenina or nuthin’, but he seems to be, at least to me, a dab hand at light action fare. Most people probably remember him as a director of the first two Iron Man movies, and perhaps laugh a bit uncomfortably when the topic of Cowboys and Aliens is brought up.
I thought this was as good a version of The Jungle Book as we’re likely to get in this day and age. Not sure if there was anything more I could have wanted from it. I don’t doubt that the only ‘thing’ on screen that was real was probably the boy, and even then in a lot of scenes he’s probably made of pixels, too. But it’s true that animation, especially that of the animals in this, who comprise the entirety of the cast, has reached that stage where we can ignore the fact that it’s animation. They get the ‘weight’ of the animals, the physical movement of the creatures absolutely right. When the villainous Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) slinks into shot, I could find no fault in what I was seeing. I’m not going to say it is flawless, but I will just say it’s so good that it makes real tigers look like the sacks of crap that they really are.
Critically this flick hasn’t done that well (though it’s made like a bazillion dollars box office wise, like Disney needs more money for anything?), and the most common (and laziest) comment I saw endlessly repeated is that, sure, the animals look realish, but the boy and his acting were fake as a three-dollar bill. Lazy hackwork, that’s what I say. The boy, Neel Sethi, does a perfect job playing the character of Mowgli, and manages to react to stuff and creatures we know aren’t there in such a way that convinces us that they are there.
About the only thing I would have changed about him was the haircut/wig. That hair was way too big. I know, I know, how would a kid who’s grown up with wolves get around to getting a short back and sides or a bowl cut anyway, but early on his hair looked less real than the CGI animals around him.
This issue and its inherent boofiness is of no importance. What is of importance, is that Mowgli has grown up in the jungle. Of some country. We can assume that it’s India, but who really knows. Could be anywhere. Could be anytime. Unlikely to be Australia, but you never know.
Mowgli is looked after by an array of animals, not least of which is the stern Bagheera (Sir Ben Kinglsey), a black panther who brought Mowgli to the wolf pack that became his foster family, or, more accurately, the only family he has ever known.
The thing about family is that they’re meant to be there for you when the shit hits the fan, when the chips are down, or when the chips hit the fan and the shit is down. During a time of drought, which leads to a truce between animals (whereby the natural order of things – carnivores eating herbivores – is suspended until the rains return), one creature chooses not to abide. Shere Khan cannot tolerate the presence or the existence of Mowgli. It, being the boy, offends his delicate sensibilities, and means trouble for every other animal until he gets his way.
This is where the bullshit of ‘family’ solidarity comes in. The chips are down, and Mowgli’s wolf pack quail in the face of a big brute. They, including the leader of the pack, Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) don’t sing their song of “all for one and one for all”, no no, they’re all like “we’ve never seen this dude before in our lives”. We are told, at the end of the Law of the Jungle, an oft recited oath of jungle loyalty, that the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack. That’s just a less concise way of saying what the Musketeers were saying for all those years.
But this pack shoves out their little wolf at the drop of one of Shere Khan’s massive paws into their neck of the jungle. It’s understandable, though, since Shere Khan is a massive tiger, and he’s voiced by Idris Elba. If he wants to eat a child, who are they to stand in his way?
Mowgli don’t want no trouble for those that he still loves, especially Raksha, the wolf mother who raised him (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o), so he decides to skedaddle. The problem is, everyone was too busy being awkward and terrified of Shere Khan to listen to what he was saying. He didn’t want Mowgli gone in the sense that he had to get out of town. Shere Khan wants Mowgli gone in the sense that he wants to kill and eat him himself.
I would have thought that was fairly unambiguous, but what can you do? These aren’t genius creatures we’re talking about. Except for Mowgs, of course. He is a sweet, empathetic kid who cares about pretty much all the creatures of the jungle except for the tiger, obviously. He is also a human boy, and a very resourceful and inventive boy at that. The other animals, not possessing his skill with tools, are irritated and sometimes frightened by his inventions. They call them ‘tricks’ in an almost derisive, but mostly fearful way. In a different place and time they’d burn him at a stake for being a witch.
When Bagheera decides to chaperone Mowgli out of the jungle, it’s an amazing surprise when things don’t pan out the way he intended. Thinking he could just dump Mowgli on whatever humans they find along the way, they get separated, and the little tacker, despite having been shunned by his community, chooses to make the best of a deeply difficult situation. The truth is, the jungle is no place for a naïve kid, or for anyone, really. It’s a deeply inhospitable place for man or beast. Think of the bloody mosquitoes, and the multitude of stinging insects, snakes, a plethora of creatures that either want to eat your or torment you or use you for your human skills.
This is really the section where the film shines, because away from the animals that mostly don’t care about him that much or try to control him, Mowgli shines. No one tells him not to invent stuff, people away from Fraggle Rock or whatever they call that place where the wolves slouch around doing nothing maybe exploit him, but they’re not trying to keep him down.
And sure, when a giant python tries to eat him, and starts singing one of my most favouritist songs in the entire universe, being Trust In Me, all of Mowgli’s engineering skills and all those repetitions of the laws of the jungle don’t count for shit when he’s about to be swallowed whole. Thankfully, a selfish and lazy bear called Baloo comes along, and saves the day. Bill Murray does his most Bill Murrayish impression in playing the bear like he’s a louche slacker par excellence. It’s charming and sly, and plenty enjoyable in a film that risked sounding like it was adhering to the Disney wholesome formula a bit too much.
Baloo enlists Mowgli’s aid in getting as much honey stored away as possible before the winter comes and he’s forced to hibernate, but, last I checked, wasn’t this story set in a jungle? Mowgli don’t care, he just likes showing off his tech skills.
In Baloo Mowgli doesn’t find a new parent / surrogate family to look after him, but someone more akin to an irresponsible but fun friend, which, at least to a kid, sounds like a pleasant substitute. All thoughts of complying with stern killjoy Bagheera’s order to leave the jungle fly out the window, or whatever the jungle equivalent of a window is. Someone as responsible and dull as Bagheera, though, can’t just let sleeping Mowglis lie.
By the time another denizen of the jungle, the ape equivalent of a mafia boss hears of Mowgli and his human ways (Christopher Walken at his creepiest in a PG rated flick), you get the sense that Mowgli is finally, as he always suspected, the most important being in the entire galaxy. I was surprised that he couldn’t use the Force at some points, but then he already has something better: the skills to take care of business, and a compassionate heart. When he uses Human skills to save a trapped creature, one whom none of the other jungle’s residents would have been able to save, you realise it’s not just his mechanical / opposable thumbs that set him apart, it’s that he internalised the idea of looking out for everyone else, and actually does it.
It’s a subtle take on the nature versus nurture argument, because Mowgli embodies the side of the argument that says there is no argument: both his lived experience with his wolf pack and his innate abilities and developed skills together make him a person who’s resourceful and compassionate, brave but careful.
Except at the end, where he does something so stupid in the pursuit of revenge that he puts all of the jungle at risk. It’s not a particularly spiritual story (which you could say about most Disney product), but the elephants of the jungle are somewhat seen as gods. Mowgli does right by these strange, immense forces of nature, and they seem to do right by him. I will admit there were moments of awe for me in this, something I never expected.
This version is not a fresh take on the original Rudyard Kipling stories, or of the original film version from the 1940s (a version I still have much affection for, seeing as it starred Sabu and was made by the Korda Brothers, who also made Thief of Baghdad), or of the one from the 90s. It’s just a straight remake of the animated movie from the 1960s, the one with the songs. That flick is generally spoken of in derisive terms, as being second tier Disney, but I’ve always had a certain amount of affection for it, especially the songs, which the makers here make the right choice in including, no matter how anachronistic they sound these days.
Bill Murray singing a jazzy ragtime Bear Necessities is a joyfully sublime moment, and Walken imitating Louis Prima singing I Wanna Be Like You is one of those moments so supernaturally strange that you wonder how they ever came about even if you appreciate them. Sadly, for me, Trust In Me doesn’t get the moment it deserves within the flick, but plays out over the end credits (sung by Scarlett Johannson, of all people, who sounds like she’s trying to out-Lana Del Rey Lana Del Rey).
The Siouxsie and the Banshees version from their covers album Through the Looking Glass (one of my favourite albums since I was a wee tacker) has nothing to worry about, ever, I don’t think, in terms of ever being bested.
This flick, being prime family fare, tries to have everything and mostly does just that, balancing the various elements, honouring the original without reflecting too many of the most rancorous Colonialist elements from the source. It has action, humour, a seductive villain worth booing, and some scary action sequences (too scary for kids under 9, I reckon) and it looks great. I didn’t see the 3D version (much to my daughter’s chagrin), but it still looks phenomenal. It’s made like a billion dollars, so a sequel is inevitable, but I can only judge on what I saw, and what I saw was good.
8 times I wish I could read books to my daughter at night with Idris Elba’s voice out of 10
“Kid, I got ears. My ears got ears. Only I can protect you.” – famous first and last words – The Jungle Book