Review: “The Jungle Book”

Written by Burl on April 13th, 2016

“The Jungle Book”
3.5 stars

Although anthropomorphism and personification have existed as literary devices for — literally —thousands of years, there was a real explosion towards the end of the Victorian era. In addition to Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book” tales, there was “The Wind In the Willows,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “Peter Rabbit,” “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Tarzan of the Apes,” right up to more recent bouts with serious literature, like “The Lord of the Rings,” “Watership Down,” and “Animal Farm.”
All this background because the newest incarnation of “The Jungle Book” made me wonder, who the hell is King Louie?
OK, he’s the oversized orangutang who heads a ruined temple full of monkeys, and he sings songs and acts both endearingly and menacingly, but Louie isn’t a character in Kipling’s stories. Orangs don’t live in India, and Kipling made the point several times that monkeys were incapable of being led — they were a pack of anarchists.
It turns out King Louie is wholly a Disney creation for the 1960s animated film, a character created from scratch in order to paper over the darker philosophical themes of the original work. Disney’s lawyers are careful to credit their work as “inspired” by Kipling, instead of an honest or straight-forward adaption. “Jungle Book” has been a cash cow for Disney, one they return to every few years to milk for remakes and spin-offs.
The 1967 animated film, for all that, is well-loved and a high point of hand-drawn animation. It is the last animated film that Uncle Walt personally oversaw and it became a touchstone for a whole generation. The new film is a remake of that film, not of Kipling’s canon. (It might be helpful to recall that Kipling’s books are collections of short stories with reoccurring animal characters, not a single long-arc story.)
This latest edition is also an extraordinary work of animation — apparently, the only real thing in it is little Neel Sethi as Mowgli. It also benefits from being helmed by Jon Favreau, a director who puts special effects at the service of story and character, instead of the other way ‘round. It’s also the first movie in a very, very long time that works well in 3-D. Very well!
It looks startlingly real. Favreau’s jungle is a dirty, messy, dangerous place. Mowgli (played by Sethi with a buoyant, yet cautious, optimism) is covered with bruises, stings, scars and mud, just the way a little boy in the jungle would be.
The animals do talk, in American and British accents. I guess it would be too much to have Mowgli sound like a tech-service telephone solicitor from Bombay. The animals look incredibly real, and Favreau doesn’t make them do facial gymnastics to make it look like they’re talking. Sometimes its as if we’re hearing their thoughts.
The voice casting is first-rate, and neatly encapsulates how we know the characters. Bagheera the panther, voiced by Ben Kingsley, is stern and concerned; Baloo the bear, voiced by Bill Murray, is the vocal equivalent of sly sloth; Shere Khan the burnt tiger, voiced by Idris Elba, is absolutely terrifying. The late Garry Shandling has a swell turn as a porcupine, Scarlett Johansson’s silky seductiveness is scary as the giant snake Kaa, and Christopher Walken’s King Louie is just plain weird (in a way that works), a mix of Brooklyn gangster and Apocalypse Now Brando.
“Jungle Book” draws you right in with the frankly amazing CGI work, Favreau’s skill at visual story-telling and the existing pop-culture familiarity with the characters. The story? Same as previous editions from Disney, but this time served up with realism and verve. Some of it is actually pretty scary.
It all works up to a point, and the exact point where it breaks loose is when suddenly the movie shifts mood and tone in order to reprise the cheesy pop songs from the 1967 animated film. Way to renew copyright, Disney! The musical interludes reinforce nothing except the notion that Disney views “Jungle Book” as product instead of literature.

 

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