Living in a line-up of experiments to resurrect and appeal to nostalgia, whether it’s through live-action revisionist fairy tales (Maleficent), a humble update (The 2o15 CGI The Peanuts Movie), or live-action straightforward adaptations (Cinderella), one must endure or enjoy hits-and-misses. Then there emerges a live-action remake of an animated Disney picture that ignites the inner child in grown-ups and even inspire an adult sensibility in children.
While I hadn’t read the original novel but grew up under the childhood nostalgia of the 1967 Disney animated classic, The Jungle Book directed by Jon Favearu here is thought-provoking.
The Jungle Book preserves the core lighthearted childlike Disneyness, even two of the Sherman Brothers‘ musical numbers for better or worse, but radiates a Princess Mononoke-inspired magnitude of meditation and ingenuity in is bestial realm. The plot rolls along with its simplicity with such a sincere majesty that the Jungle Book feels as classic as-arguably feels older than-its 1890s origins as a Rudyard Kipling’s book.
Perhaps deriving heavily from the source material itself, Justin Mark‘s screenplay unfolds the dynamics between the creatures, though fluidity of their language. It’s a classic tale, old as time, advanced and reinterpreted for our age, where the dreaded “fire” among the animal populace is referred to as the feared “red flower” and the animals treat the humans as distant demigods to steer clear of. But they have civility to recognize that Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young orphaned “man-cub” adopted by a wolf pack, can co-exist among them despite their wariness over a surreal case of having human dwell among them.
Much like the rules of The Lion King where predators and preys of the food chain can assemble peacefully for the grand occurrence of Prince Simba’s birth, beasts of all shapes, sizes, and species enact a long-established peace truce at a watering hole after a mighty drought since the Law of the Jungle is drink first before eat.
The binaries of this fictional animal kingdom are established to a politicized lengths, a fascinating civility that only ancient stories, like fairy tales and myths, can make possible. The truce at the watering hole sets the stage for the respected pragmatics of the Law of the Jungle, which does not erase the natural food chain of prey fleeing predators and predators chasing prey, not out of malice but the need to not starve, while also establishing boundaries.
But the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), having been burned by a human traveler, pompously debates that Mowgli will grow corrupt and destructive like humans, at first making his case through his own rationalization before resorting to physical threats that bend the Law. Knowing that the Law isn’t enough to protect them, the wolves decide to send the boy back to the man-village “where he came from” to spare their man-cub and other lives. As his teacher, the black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), escorts him, Mowgli questions the logistics of this solution by invoking his origin story, wondering aloud if Bagheera found him in the jungle and not the man village, then what really is home for a man-cub like him?
The adopted wolf father Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Bagheera admonishes Mowgli for dabbling in “tricks,” like an impromptu makeshift bucket, a roped coconut piece, to cup water or tools that appear improper in the eyes of the beasts, in hopes of shaping Mowgli into a wolf. But while Mowgli does identify the wolves as his family, he has to break out of the mold of “wolf” to survive because while this story has the typical ingredients of Man vs. Nature, it’s also a Man and Nature narrative at its core where Bagheera learns he can’t repress the “Man” within Mowgli.
Neel provides credibility to Mowgli’s rounded nature, naive and gullible to trust villain’s words but also precocious enough to challenge preconceptions set upon him, and despite butting heads with Bagheera and favoring Baloo’s easy-going standards, he does deeply respect his mentor. Easily Mowgli’s bestial mentors, allies, and acquaintances could have been reduced to archetypical philosophical mouthpieces, but the seriousness in the script and the skilled vocality of the actors gives them weight, and most importantly, a population of diverse lens to the protagonist’s world and his growth. While Mowgli’s rearing is dominated by the warm diverse paternal figures of Bill Murray‘s laid-back bear Baloo and the distinctive but kind sternness of Kingsley and Esposito, Lupita Nyong’o’s performance as Rashka, although the supporting character of Mowgli’s mother, deserves special notability with her nurturing nature and her budding assertion. Even Shere Khan’s antagonistic extremism is treated with understanding that we comprehend his petty motives, base as they are.
Much like in the animated classic, despite clashing heads in their mindsets, both Bagheera’s stern protective mindset and Baloo’s easy-going standards both nourished Mowgli’s well-being.
Even when Jon Favearu’s Jungle Book plucks the nostalgia strings hard with homages, it’s not to bait the heart with familiarity, but to contemplate our growth. The sudden rendition of “I Wanna Be Like You,” sung by Christopher Walken‘s intimidating ancient Gigantopithecus King Louie, is obligatory because the song existed in the animated film. Yet, it’s an astounding transition to listen “I Wanna Be Like You” as a catchy serviceable jabs to a primate’s view of humans and then updated (and “reprised” decades later) into a still lighthearted but also stealth dialectic about coveting the plane of “humanness” through the lens of a self-entitled primate who’s not as evolved as he would like to believe. The more contextually-placed “Bear Necessities” gains special weight for giving Mowlgi an of the serene mode, a fleshed-out Hakuna-Matata if you will, of living.
All this complexity and the VFX photorealism, alive to be believed but also restrained from slipping into extreme uncanny valley, cumulate into warm-hearted quality.
*Image Source: screenrant.com