This Jungle Book Might Be THE Jungle BookPosted: April 23, 2016
There have been many iterations of The Jungle Book over the years, including several live-action films, but none have been enough to usurp the 1967 animated classic or the original Rudyard Kipling stories. Until now, that is. With this latest incarnation of the tale of Mowgli, director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks have created what might prove to be the ultimate version of Kipling’s world, removing the ugly racism and retaining all of the wonder and adventure. The result is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and one I already can’t wait to revisit.
Any conversation about The Jungle Book has to begin with the special effects, which are stunning. The titular jungle is a fully-realized world, beautifully rendered in just-left-of-photorealistic CGI. The world is both tangible and just fake enough for the talking animals to fit, a difficult balance that is accomplished just right. And the pinnacle of this computer wizardry are the animal characters themselves, which are wonderfully animated and perfectly voiced. All of the animals are easy to fall in love with, and each has their own clear identity and particular sort of charm. Baloo is charming and roguish and goofy, Bagheera is noble and protective, Raksha is loving and forceful, and on and on. Three of our characters, however, stand removed from the rest, and through them we see the true heart of this Jungle Book.
In Shere Khan, we see an animal given to wanton violence and driven by a primal need for revenge. He possesses an equal level of cunning and viciousness, both driven by a certainty of his own prowess. And in King Louie, we see an animal seeking a power that is beyond him (“man’s red flower”), hoping to raise himself above the other animals and establish his superiority. He covets what he doesn’t understand, knowing only that the other animals fear it and thus would fear him. With both characters, we see animals that have been twisted and perverted by the influence of man, living outside the laws of the jungle for their own sake.
The third outsider is of course Mowgli himself, the man-cub orphaned in the jungle, saved by Bagheera and raised by the wolves. Mowgli loves being in the jungle, and loves his surrogate family, but he doesn’t fully fit in; he doesn’t grow as fast as a wolf, nor does he have the same hunting instincts. What he does have is a natural instinct towards making tools, something the other animals discourage. It’s when Shere Khan declares his intention to kill Mowgli that it becomes clear the man-cub cannot stay with his pack any longer, which sets him off on a journey to find his rightful place in the world. But that journey is notably different this time, and it’s thanks to the changes made by Jon Favreau and Justin Marks that this movie goes from good to great.
Per the original story (and the animated film), Mowgli’s rightful place is supposedly to claim the inherent primacy of his humanity by using fire against Shere Khan and earning the right to return to the man village. But Favreau and Marks reject this notion (one rooted in Kipling’s imperialist racism) for something much more positive and forward-thinking. Here, “man’s red flower” is not symbolic of mankind’s superiority, but our propensity for destruction, and Mowgli’s attempt to use it does more harm than good. In the end, Mowgli must combine his human “tricks” with his wolf knowledge to defeat Shere Khan, and in the process finds his equal place in the jungle alongside all the others.
In making this major change to Kipling’s story, Favreau and Marks succeed where the animated classic failed: they have successfully excised the racist, imperialist message of the story and provided a much more inclusive, open-minded point of view. Now, Mowgli’s journey is about embracing your own talents and finding your equal place in the natural world, rather than claiming a presumptive superiority over your neighbors. It’s still an uplifting tale of being true to yourself, while also acknowledging that we all must live in harmony for the world to function.
Of course none of the thematics or CGI would work at all without strong performances to hold it all together, and thankfully The Jungle Book has those in spades. Every voice actor perfectly nails the (very human) nature of these animals, and fully earns their fantastical anthropomorphism. And at the center of it all is newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli. While the man-cub might have been raised in the wild, he is just as human a child as any you’ve met in real life, and this is what grounds the entire experience, Mowgli’s stubbornness in the face of Bagheera’s scolding, his unrestrained joy at goofing around with Baloo, and his fear, anger and eventual wide-eyed optimism in the face of his adversaries all feel real, and that makes everything he faces feel real as well.
The original animated Jungle Book was never my favorite as a child, and as an adult I’ve come to recognize the unfortunate core of that version of the story. But with this new iteration of the tale, I see a film that works better than its predecessor in almost every way. It’s a more focused narrative, a more tangibly emotional journey, and it conveys a much grander and positive message. For me, this IS The Jungle Book now, and it will be for a very long time.