Voices of: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken
Director: Jon Favreau
Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a feral child abandoned in the forest, raised by wolves and mentored by the wise panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). The evil tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) hates humans and blackmails the wolves into handing Mowgli over to him. Bagheera escapes with Mowgli to protect the boy. In their journey across the jungle, they have many exciting encounters: with Baloo the sloth bear (Bill Murray), Kaa the snake (Scarlett Johansson) and Louie, king of the monkeys (Christopher Walken), all of whom lead Mowgli on the path to knowledge concerning his past and his future.
Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book stories have remained perennial classics of children literature. The original books were a collection of stories rather than a single narrative and in the original cartoon, Disney presented a simpler plot that was more Hollywood than Kipling. Having enjoyed considerable success reviving animated cartoons as live-action films (Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the Angelina Jolie vehicle Maleficent, the previous year’s Cinderella), Jon Favreau’s live-action reworking of The Jungle Book follows suit. The film is a loose reworking of the cartoon, some elements such as the vultures with Beatles haircuts are excised entirely, and only two songs (Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You) remains in the film. The film works primarily as an impressive visual spectacle.
The most remarkable achievement is the technical breakthrough in rendering anthropomorphism. Following the success of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, this film goes further with a case of one boy and a cast of entirely CGI animals. All these animals are bigger in scale than their real-life counterparts which helps to convey how small and vulnerable Mowgli is in the jungle, but it also gives the film a sense of authentic fantasy. The animals are all rendered in photorealistic CGI and it’s marvelous to see the head of Bagheera look and move like the head of a panther and yet still move its lips, speak in the voice of Ben Kingsley and, if you squint long enough, resemble him. This applies to Bill Murray’s Baloo and weirdly Scarlet Johannson’s Kaa. The animals are rendered with double faces, simultaneously animal and human, an effect that is only really possible with CGI.
The most impressive animal is Louie and he also claims the film’s most impressive sequence. Voiced by the incomparable Christopher Walken, this is the film’s most fantastic creature. An extinct great ape, nine feet tall, who inhabits the ruins of a temple in the jungle. He acts like a kind of Mob Boss of the jungle, offering the hero protection in exchange for the power of fire (called “Red Flower” by the animals) to rise to the top of the food chain. The catchy song I Wanna Be Like You is made into a dramatic soliloquy in the film, having greater intensity than before. The animation of Louie is thrilling, especially in the chase sequence where the giant chases the tiny Mowgli through the narrow, cramped corridors of the temple, moving far more nimbly than his size would otherwise suggest.
The film’s greater visual realism makes this film more tense and dark than the original cartoon. The Shere Khan of the cartoon (voiced by the great George Sanders) was hardly in the film much and his violence was implied rather than depicted. The new Shere Khan is more direct and more vicious and it must be said, far cooler in design and presence. He’s voiced by Idris Elba and is as charismatic as he is ruthless. The presence of Shere Khan as a villain, while certainly not foreign to Rudyard Kipling’s original stories, does have a few issues near the film’s climax.
The idea underlying the jungle in this film is essentially the “Circle of Life” in The Lion King — the division of “good animals” and “bad animals” — lions are good animals even if they eat the antelope, while hyenas are bad animals even if they do the same. This division of animals is not really present in Kipling’s stories where the use of the jungle and the animals as metaphors is more fluid than fixed, and where Mowgli in tackling Shere Khan embraces his own dark side and becomes a hunter.
In this film, Shere Khan is repeatedly described by other animals as a monster and depicted as more violent than wolves, bears, panthers and elephants. I can imagine more than a few wildlife conservationists taking offence at the depiction of a jungle kingdom that so thoroughly demonises our endangered national animal. Especially since The Jungle Book, and this film adaptation, is set in the forests of Seoni district, Madhya Pradesh, home to the Pench Tiger Reserve, a domain intended to protect the real-life Shere Khans.
Rudyard Kipling’s books may have had issues but he was born and brought up in Mumbai and his works do reflect some awareness of India. Disney’s film on the other hand mangles perfectly normal words like Raksha (almost pronounced as the suffix of Rakshasa), Bandar-Log (pronounced Band-Are Logg). That the film is releasing in India a week before America suggests a failure on the part of film-makers to truly engage with a global audience.
The voice acting in this film is superlative, though the true stars are the animators and director Jon Favreau (Iron Man 1 and 2). Neel Sethi’s Mowgli has an incredibly cute and appealing presence. It must have been an especially hard role for the young actor since almost all his co-stars were invisible during shooting. The emotional bond formed between Mowgli and Bagheera is quite touching. Bill Murray’s Baloo is shown as an altogether less likeable character than the cartoon and Murray perfectly puts across the mix between sincerity and exploitation that characterises his newer and more complex friendship with the innocent Mowgli.
For Kipling, India was the world of his childhood, and The Jungle Book and his other stories represented that world. This version of The Jungle Book is a brilliant and beautiful evocation of the time when everything was bigger than us, when the natural world seemed to be full of wonders and where almost every new animal species, whose picture and presence we glimpsed, was an adventure in and of itself. This film is a brilliant fantasy for the whole family to see, reviving one of the great classics for a new generation.
The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society