Hello, movie lovers! I'm back again, offering un-asked-for armchair commentary on yet another movie I had nothing to do with the creation of. This week I battled rain and beleaguered parents of indifferent children to get into a screening of The Jungle Book, the latest self-tribute/re-imagining picture from Disney. So, how does it stack up?
I'll be honest: I wasn't planning on seeing this. To my mind, it seemed nothing more than other recent Disney remakes like Maleficent or Alice in Wonderland, none of which I have been interested in. But I went anyway. And you know what? I enjoyed it. In many ways it seemed a different enough movie from its originator to to offer up a nice afternoon at the movie house, even though I had to sit next to people whose kids needed to pee every 45 minutes.
First, let's talk about why you might want to see it. If you've heard anything about the film's effects, it's all true. They really are quite remarkable. If you're like me and are inherently suspicious of people who say things like that, believe me: the movie is not a fatiguing effects-fest. Because the only "real" thing in many given instances in Mowgli himself, there is a faint kind of legendariness to the whole thing, fitting material given life by Kipling. Other than to be initially impressive, the film's visual effects don't distract and certainly never evoke something like the animated section of Mary Poppins. They allow a fantastical story to play out naturally.
Weirdly, the film's most unnatural moments come when the specter of Disney (in the form of due respect to the 1967 animated feature) is evoked. Like any phantom, its presence is felt gradually until it can no longer be overlooked. First Kaa says (but does not sing) "Trust in me," which works. Then Baloo and Mowgli sing "The Bear Necessities" floating down the river, but it still pretty much fits and is kinda fun. Then King Louis goes into full dance number mode with "I Wanna Be Like You" sung by Christopher Walken. Yep. In case you were wondering, this IS a Disney movie with a heritage of FAMOUS songs that audiences LOVE.
Now, since this movie is more remake of Disney than revisitation of Kipling, it is not out of place to compare it with its brother. They are, essentially, coming-of-age stories, although they arrive at very different conclusions. In 1967, the worlds of childhood and adulthood are as separate as the jungle and the village. There is a certain bittersweetness as Mowgli crosses the river. We know it is right, even inevitable, but still wish for him to be able to stay. But he (and we) cannot have both, and so the fable teaches us something.
Nowadays, though, we are not comfortable with a little conflicting melancholy in our endings, so Mowgli gets to stay behind as a kind of conscientious boy-king of the jungle. You might read that Man's knack for wrecking his environment can be reconciled by greater awareness thereof, but I see it as a weakened coming-of-age tale tailored to a generation whose inability to let go probably forced this iteration of King Louis to jump from shadowy threat to awkward sideshow because the old Louis was on Sing-Along Songs.
Coming of age stories get their strength from the child no longer being a child at the end, which requires the leaving-behind of an old self. Here, as in many modern tales, Mowgli gets to just be who he always was to begin with instead of someone new. And so an otherwise-entertaining and well-told story is cheated somewhat by a soft, modern-age ending. You will notice the conspicuous absence of "'Til I'm Grown."
Have I read too much into it? Probably. But thither my thoughts turn when, on an otherwise empty theatre row, a family with a ten year old with a refillable soda jug sits exactly next to me. Ah, the unpredictable joys of family cinema.
The Jungle Book features Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Lupita Nyong'o, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken, and Scarlett Johansson, and is rated PG for general jungle-related action.
Written by Justin Marks
Directed by Jon Favreau
by Chase Harrison