Directed by: Jon Favreau
Cast: Neel Sethi, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong'o, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken, Ben Kingsley
The Jungle Book by Jon Favreau differs from the original text in its plot, roster of characters, and even in the characters of its characters. It’s an exciting 3D experience, but I do not find the story to be an improvement upon the original.
Kipling’s Jungle Book was a collection of short stories and poems, rather whimsically put together, that featured the jungle boy Mowgli – but also other characters in other stories. It was followed by The Second Jungle Book, which was similarly eclectic.
The Mowgli stories are delightful stories that have sparked the imaginations of children and adults for over a century. There is in those stories the thrill of jungle adventures, the romance of freedom, the exotic made human, the dangerous understood.
Kipling’s narrative was layered. The stories could be read simply as adventures, and also as allegories. The Mowgli stories told the tale of a boy in the jungle, but also the tale of someone struggling to find where he truly belongs...and a reflection on British rule in India, with the natives cast in the unflattering role of the leaderless Bandar Log- the monkeys.
It was Kipling who wrote the poem “The White Man’s Burden”. Racism and imperialism were default settings in practically all people in his time, and unremarkable. He should be judged by the values of his times, just as our contemporaries should be judged by the values of ours. In his case we can forgive the implicit racism and cheerleading of imperialism. What remains is pure magic.
Kipling’s craft was effortless. The complex, layered narrative, of The Jungle Books is deceptively easy to read and light in tone, like the Jataka Tales and Aesop's Fables that probably inspired it. However, it is in this, that Favreau has failed spectacularly, in stunningly real 3D.
There is an unmistakable darkness of tone that runs through his Jungle Book. This jungle is a place of dread and menace, a world that might be closer to the jungle, not of Joseph Rudyard Kipling, but of Joseph Conrad – a jungle reminiscent of the Heart of Darkness.
In this jungle, Mowgli the man-cub becomes Mowgli the poor little boy lost in the woods. Shere Khan, the tiger, becomes an irresistible despot whose terror runs through the jungle. Kaa, the wise old rock python of Kipling’s book, is now a seductively dangerous and evil serpent voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Perhaps a friendly and reliable snake with a sense of humour went against Favreau’s cultural sensibilities. Kipling, who was born in Mumbai, would have known of snakes as familiar animals that are even worshipped. Favreau, like Disney, is perhaps more familiar with a story where a serpent caused mankind’s fall from Eden.
The question of belonging, which is a difficult recurring issue in Kipling’s stories, is seemingly resolved right at the outset in Favreau’s telling. We see, along with Bagheera the panther and the grey wolves, that there is no doubt about where Mowgli belongs; Mowgli belongs with his own kind, the humans, and his own protestations to the contrary are just the silly tantrums of a child.
Mowgli, for Favreau, is dangerously naïve. He does not know the ways of the world and must be protected in the jungle where danger lurks in every branch. He cannot really look after himself. His heroic redemption is expected, but ultimately unconvincing. It comes only with his being liberated to be who he really is – not wolf, but man.
“Be who you are” is a familiar trope in Hollywood. Kung Fu Panda tells a similar story, with much more élan and humour.
While the plot for Favreau’s version of the Jungle Books is largely borrowed from Walt Disney’s animated 1967 version, it differs completely in tone. Disney took great liberties with Kipling’s version to produce a fun children’s cartoon with cutesy animals. He was the one who gave the Bandar Log an orangutan king named Louie, and turned Baloo, the bear who was teacher of the wolves in Kipling’s original, into a lazy, lovable rogue who sings.
When that version was being produced, Walt Disney was still alive and in charge of his studio. The first version that came out stuck closely to the text. Translating the lightness of Kipling’s touch into visuals proved difficult, because the story is in fact a dark one, in a dark setting with characters that are various shades of dangerous. A writer can get away with blithely talking of tigers and snakes hunting and killing in the wild, and make it sound like good fun; a filmmaker must show them.
So it was that the first version of Disney’s Jungle Book, which had been created by artist Bill Peet, came to have a dark, sinister tone. Disney didn’t like it. The ensuing arguments led to Peet’s exit from the company. Disney junked the whole thing, and did his own version, with ridiculous elephants, a mildly-threatening tiger, a singing bear and orangutan, and a general ambience that made the Indian jungle look like a Disneyland theme park. It was the last animation film he completed before his death.
It is possible that Disney would have liked Favreau’s version as little as he liked Peet’s if he were still around. The director has let the powers of CGI run away with the story. The realism is a tad sinister for children, but the film has shaved too much off the narrative layers to work as an adult story in the way another film with a Bengal tiger - Life of Pi - did. The characters, especially Mowgli himself, are not etched strongly enough. The visuals are spectacular, but the swings from default menacing to occasional goofy musical are as abrupt as the worst of Bollywood.
Throwing in a King Kong lookalike, in the shape of an extinct species called the gigantopithecus, seems unnecessary to the plot. The song he sings is the same that the orangutan did in Disney’s 1967 version. So is “Bare Necessities”, the song sung by Baloo the bear. It is in this segment that the friendly, charming jungle of Disney’s version briefly returns.
The film is very well produced. The effects are spectacular and the performances are good. It is entirely worth watching, but its implicit politics is as troubling as Kipling’s was.
Favreau’s version is a story of man versus beast, and perhaps even of man versus nature. It is a story where apes want desperately to become humans – an old colonial way of laughing at natives who want to become sahibs. It is a place where razing people’s home to the ground to win the fight is collateral damage that someone else can fix.
It is, in other words, a recognizably real story that perpetuates the colonial and Orientalist worldviews in an unbroken tradition through the centuries from Kipling to Disney to now....