Nostalgia is inherently manipulative, and very few are immune to it. Jon Favreau’s adaptation of The Jungle Book, which releases in India a week ahead of its release in the United States, is very aware of this.
As a result, it is almost a certainty that few will be able to walk away from this film without wide grins on their faces and perhaps a song on their lips. In my case, it was ‘I Wan’na Be Like You’, the song sung by King Louie in Disney’s delightful 1967 animated version, which is one of only two songs that is reprised in Favreau’s grimmer version.
But as I walked away from the theatre, I found myself mining my memories for that light-hearted, I-want-to-hug-myself feeling I’d get every time when, as a kid (or man-cub), I’d re-watch the well-worn VHS tape of the Disney cartoon that we had when VCRs were still a thing.
Because this version is — although darker and often closer to the tone of Rudyard Kipling’s original short story Mowgli’s Brothers (one of the 14 that make up the original anthology referred to as The Jungle Book) — well… impressive. It hits all the important beats in the original story while deviating every now and then (we’ll get to that in a bit).
But what you really take home, rather than the story, is the visual spectacle. Favreau’s reinterpretation has, without doubt, some of the best visual effects and usage of 3D committed to screen since Avatar (2009), the underrated Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole (2010), and Life Of Pi (2012). Blending live action and photorealistic CGI flawlessly, this is one of the most immersive experiences I’ve had in a movie theatre since, well, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Mowgli (a spirited Neel Sethi) is real; everyone else around him, including his incredibly adorable wolf-cub brother Gray, is the result of up-to-date technology being utilised by some of the best in the business.
The story here begins much further ahead, with an incredibly agile Mowgli scampering through the jungle, navigating tree-trunks and branches with incredible ease before tumbling to the ground. The panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) catches up with him, admonishing him from breaking away from the wolf-pack. In this movie, unlike the original, we find out much later how Mowgli came to live in the jungle raised by the wolves Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito).
At first, watching such realistic anthropomorphic animals on screen was a bit unsettling for me. In animation, you have the freedom to make animals emote like human beings, bolstered further by great voice-acting. It’s part of what made the original, and every animated film since that has featured talking animals, so magical and humourous. When you see a bear raising an eyebrow, or an orangutan flashing a lazy grin, it helps you connect with them on a human level.
The Jungle Book of today is fantastic as a movie-going experience, and somewhat less as a cathartic one. As blockbuster entertainment, it is complete in every way; as a standalone work, it is a little too dependent on its staggering legacy.
Here, the animals come across mostly as, well, animals. Here, we get a slightly watered-down version of Raksha’s maternal instincts, saved somewhat by Nyong’o’s excellent delivery. Ditto for Bagheera, who is as stern and poker-faced as one would imagine Kingsley to be in real life, unlike the more concerned and often-exasperated guardian he was in the original film. The most relatable character, predictably, is the happy-go-lucky bear Baloo, voiced by a perfect Bill Murray.
The mockery over the U/A (or PG) rating given to Favreau’s version, I believe, is unfair. This is a much more sinister film, trading the family-friendly innocence of the original for the kind of realism that today’s kids — brought up on a diet of violence through superhero flicks, video games, and access to the Internet — are perhaps more likely to appreciate.
When Bagheera fights the film’s dreaded antagonist, the Bengal tiger Shere Khan (a fantastic Idris Elba), it feels a lot closer to the bear attack from The Revenant — minus the blood and gore, of course — than you’d expect from a kids’ movie. King Louie, who doesn’t even exist in Kipling’s stories, was a comical character in the original, practically a stoner; here, although voiced hilariously by the great Christopher Walken, he is a gigantic bully with the silkiness of a goodfella. This film also has no place for the likes of Colonel Hathi — the elephants here are silent, dignified creatures, closer to Kipling’s characters, who would never dream of breaking into song.
As the film progressed, hinging upon Shere Khan’s obsession with killing Mowgli before he transforms into the man who scarred his face with fire, I grew more at ease with its style. It retains elements from the original (the snake Kaa — voiced by Scarlett Johansson — is a foe, not a friend), brings in elements from the original stories, and attempts to create something wholly new and original. Weirdly enough, after all its attempts to subvert with a violent climax, it ends on a much happier note than its light-hearted 1967 predecessor, whose bittersweet ending would always leave me in tears.
The result is, perhaps, a reflection of our times, which prizes street-smartness over innocence, individualism over the collective, and spectacle over soul. The Jungle Book of today is fantastic as a movie-going experience, and somewhat less as a cathartic one. As blockbuster entertainment, it is complete in every way; as a standalone work, it is a little too dependent on its staggering legacy.
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