Movie Review: The Jungle Book
Director Jon Favreau uses state of the art digital technology to animate Rudyard Kipling’s story of an orphan boy raised by wolves, and in the process, exhumes the dark heart of a child’s version of Apocalypse Now
The Jungle Book
Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong’o, Garry Shandling
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Running time: 1hr 45 mins
Rating: Parental Guidance
By Katherine Monk
Rudyard Kipling was a genius. So was Walt Disney. But for the past 50 years, the distance between them has been camouflaged by a cartoon.
Walt didn’t like the darker strains in Kipling’s story of a “man-cub” found by a jaguar, adopted by a wolf, hunted by a tiger and befriended by a bear. Often interpreted as a metaphor for man’s destructive tendency and his inability to see himself as part of a larger, natural world, The Jungle Book has even been considered a seminal piece of environmentalism, not to mention the inspiration for the Boy Scouts.
Walt Disney preferred to keep things perky instead of pathos-laden, so the 1967 version of The Jungle Book he created — and eventually died making — is a Mary Poppins kind of memory scored to the Bare Necessities. It’s Kipling in two colourful dimensions.
This new digital take on the classic shows what you can do half a century later, now that pixels can dance in stereoscopic 3D and kids are only too aware of living on a plastic scrap heap of a planet. Thanks to Jon Favreau’s sensitive direction, it also shows that you can make things better by following the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle.
Keeping the basic template of the 1967 landmark, complete with songs, Favreau recycles the core narrative, rediscovers Kipling’s darker elements, then processes them through state-of-the-art technology to create something that feels the same — but looks different enough to carve its own initials in the trunk of collective memory.
The creatures are the key. They look and move like real animals, but with an unmistakably human touch. Imagine a real-life sloth bear with Bill Murray’s voice, a black jaguar with Sir Ben Kingsley’s elocution, or a giant ape singing and dancing with the intensity of Christopher Walken… and a hint of Marlon Brando.
It’s entertaining, but also suitably surreal: A fever dream from childhood where dark forces lurk in the blurred edges of the frame, but don’t always manifest in the way you imagine.
The looming sense of danger is enough to keep the engine of tension engaged, but if there’s any flaw in this altogether spellbinding jaunt through the jungle, it’s pacing and focus. There are moments when the movie loses its grip on the vine of story and seems to dangle there without much to say, probably because Mowgli doesn’t really evolve as a character.
He remains a blank page and a largely passive character. Things happen to him, and he reacts. Young actor Neel Sethi looks like the Mowgli we remember, and he captures the unwitting self-absorption of little boys, but ironically, it’s the way the animals treat him that make him feel human.
The voice actors are the real stars: Bill Murray, Christopher Walken and Ben Kingsley are just the beginning. Idris Elba is the scary tiger Shere Khan, Scarlett Johansson is the slithering Kaa and the late great Garry Shandling has a gloriously prickly last stand as the porcupine Ikki.
Walken has the best scene in the whole movie as the ape King Louie, and Favreau ensures our closest relatives are more terrifying than the tiger. Ultimately, we are the biggest threat to the jungle — a key point for Kipling, who wrote this line about us, the gray apes:” “Thou hast been with the Monkey People—the gray apes—the people without a law—the eaters of everything.”
The script pays homage to these thoughts without causing Walt to roll over in his cryo-chamber, and Favreau salutes the spirit of Walt Disney by keeping the music, the comedy and the sense of magic.
The result is something that looks like Life of Pi, reads like Kipling and feels like the wilds of India — and that’s not bad considering this whole tribute to nature and the wild kingdom was filmed on the soundstages of downtown Los Angeles and animated with the latest of “man tricks” called digital tools.
THE EX-PRESS, April 15, 2016