My review of the new version of The Jungle Book.
Disney, which is to say the Walt Disney Company, own Mickey Mouse lock, stock and underlying copyright. The same with Donald Duck, Goofy and a clutch of associated toons. But Disney’s greatest achievements, from the Three Little Pigs and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the 1930s to The Jungle Book in 1967 (the last cartoon feature Walt personally supervised), come from putting their stamp on pre-existing properties, whether fairy tales and fables whose actual authorship is lost in antiquity or proper books written by people like P.L. Travers (who was alive enough to argue) and Rudyard Kipling (who wasn’t). Arguably, things like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella aren’t properties or franchises but evolving folk tales where each interpretation draws on what went before and passes on to what comes next. That even applies to certain things, like Alice in Wonderland (or, away from Walt, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula), that were once the creation of a single author but have escaped into that minefield of pop culture and entertainment industry intellectual property. So, this new live-action take on Kipling is a revision of the cartoon musical – which has had a bunch of sequel spin-offs few folks care about – rather than a return to the novel. It’s worth remembering that Zoltan Korda made a live-action Jungle Book (with Sabu as Mowgli) in 1942 and Disney themselves backed Stephen Sommers’ Tarzan-style sequel with Jason Scott Lee as an athletic jungle boy in 1994 (this new film could be a prequel to that). The novel may even have a longer cultural shadow as an influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs than it does on its own. NB: there are dozens of Tarzan films and a clutch of Mowgli movies, but only one film version of W.H. Hudson’s Green Mansions – in which the child raised in the jungle is a girl – even though Hudson’s Rima was once significant enough as a character to earn an Epstein statue in Hyde Park and (through a rights quirk) a reserve spot in the Justice League.
Scripted by Justin Marks – who must have some huge pull in Hollywood to get another gig after signing Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li – and directed by Jon Favreau – hoping to get back some of the Iron Man cred squandered on Cowboys and Aliens – this new Jungle Book is on the pattern of Maleficent. It doesn’t go so far as to look at the story again and decide Shere Khan was right to be worried about a man-cub in the jungle – which, from an eco-awareness point of view and considering how few tigers there are left these days, might even be a solid argument. But it does take what was cartoonish and complicate it, using animal-manipulation CGI and starry voice-over work to conjure up a new vision of Kipling’s Jungle society where predators are genuine threats and characters once treated as jokes become semi-kaiju. Disney’s involvement with anthropomorphising animals extends to its wild-life documentaries too – and some of their near-surreal hyper-focus comes through here as panthers, bears, wolves and tigers move like animals but think like people. It’s not just the recital of the Law of the Jungle that makes this seem like a gathering of the humanimals from The Island of Dr Moreau – the way animals are used to represent types of human strength or failing evokes Wells’ satire, though it also cuts against the grain of a story which is all about human exceptionalism. As a kid in 1967, I loved the cartoon Jungle Book – as my name suggests, Kipling was a big author in the Newman house and I grew up on the Just So stories and Puck of Pook’s Hill – but hated the way Mowgli was stuck with an American kid voice (Bruce Reitherman) as if he were some avatar of Tom Sawyer or Theodore ‘Beaver’ Cleaver. That he was an almost unique non-white kid hero was glossed over by this voice-casting; the fact that Sabu was in the earlier version suggested racial sensitivities rolling backwards. Amazingly, they’ve done the same thing again: Neel Sethi looks like Mowgli but sounds like a suburban yank brat. Would it really have broken the deal to get an Indian lad to do the voice? Or at least dubbed the part for international audiences so we don’t have to listen to a Mouseketeer man-cub?
Everyone else is spot-on – almost miraculously so. Ben Kingsley as a dignified and sly panther Bagheera … Idris Elba as a cunning, vicious Shere Khan (his line reading of ‘I think they’re afraid of something else now’ is priceless) … Lupita Nyong’o as wolf-mother Raksha … Bill Murray as slobbish slacker bear Baloo … Scarlett Johansson as hypnotic, exposition-spouting python Kaa … Christopher Walken as gigantopithecus monkey King Louie … even the late Garry Shandling as Ikki the porcupine. The thrust of this retelling is that Shere Khan, scarred from an encounter with ‘man’s red flower’, wants wolf-raised moppet Mowgli dead and terrorises his friends (as usual with Disney, surrogate and actual parents get clawed and bitten to death) in order to provoke a confrontation. Conservative animals disapprove of Mowgli using tools to solve problems since we all know that ropes and levers lead to fire – essentially, in the metaphor of the 1967 film, nuclear holocaust. But his plucky ingenuity won’t be thwarted. The initial pace is fast and there’s near-constant peril. Plus you get actual death. Then, as Mowgli falls in with Baloo and is tricked into getting him honey, Murray starts singing ‘The Bear Necessities’ and we remember this is a reboot for a musical and Disney aren’t going to waste that back catalogue of great numbers (by Terry Gilkyson and the Sherman Brothers) even when they’re going for a gritty, confrontational Greystokey take on Kipling. And I defy you not to be moved by the bowing-to-elephants moment.
In 1989, Disney released Stay Awake, an album of reinterpretations of their classic songs by the likes of Tom Waits, Sinead O’Connor, Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor that was a pointed reminder of just how deep and profound the material is. An end credits cover of ‘Bear Necessities’ by Dr John is very much in this tradition, but even more impressive are the covers of ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ from Walken (delivered in a menacing manner that makes King Louie sound like the leader of a rogue state desperate to cajole a nuclear capability out of an unwilling ally) and ‘Trust in Me’ from Johansson (also under the end credits – which offer a stunning variety of animation styles and are well worth sitting still for). It’s to Favreau’s credit that the songs aren’t out of place: we live with talking animals for the purpose of enjoying this yarn, so why not have them sing too? It took me a while to get past Sethi’s voice (his physical performance is fine) but the 3D environment, the vivid animal characters and a sense of this property’s real stature got me onside. I think The Jungle Book is, as the saying goes, too intense for younger children … but it’s a genuinely felt remounting of a story that’s lasted for all sorts of reasons. NB: one of the few significant female characters of the 1967 film has been dropped – though that may have more to do with leaving the ending open for the already greenlit sequel.