I’ve read Rudyard Kipling’s two “Jungle Books” many times and watched Disney’s animated film when it came out almost half a century ago. But until I saw the updated computer-generated version, I never thought of it as an Old Testament story.
Carnivores and herbivores, predators and prey live together in a kind of Eden, until man interrupts the balance. (The rogue tiger, Shere Khan, turns evil after a human burns and half-blinds him.)
Innocent “man-cub” Mowgli lives in harmony with animals, but as soon as he acquires adult knowledge, he’ll have to leave. Dimly seen adults, outliers in a village just beyond this demi-paradise, keep an eternal flame going to ward off creatures from forbidden territory. And the one naturally selfish, deceptive beast in the jungle is ... a snake.
Maybe Kipling simply intended his stories as an allegory about growing up, losing the “animal” in our young selves and embracing – not without regret – things that make us human. But the well-composed movie directed by Jon Favreau and written by Justin Marks takes us beyond the 1967 cartoon and, in some ways, beyond Kipling.
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Sloth bear Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray) isn’t just lazy and good-natured; he’s a con man exploiting Mowgli (nondescript Neel Sethi). Shere Khan (Idris Elba) has become psychotic, not sinister. Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), a character wasted here, is creepily mesmeric rather than klutzy. Elephants were puffed-up British colonials in 1967; now they’re unspeaking behemoths before whom other animals bow down.
King Louie, who wants to tame fire, was voiced by goofy Louis Prima in the cartoon. Christopher Walken aims for deranged grandeur instead; the gargantuan orangutan sits in the ruins of a stone palace, huge hands cradling his head, and mumbles about conquest. (If he’s not meant to be Col. Kurtz from the film “Apocalypse Now,” I’ll eat a liana vine.)
Favreau, best known as a director for the first two “Iron Man” films, neither neglects big action sequences nor turns the movie into a “Tarzan” knockoff. (The live-action “Jungle Book” from 1994, which succeeded on its own terms but not Kipling’s, did that.)
The credits say the entire film was shot in downtown Los Angeles, and the only living character is Mowgli. The special-effects team does its best work when animals stand still and show their expressive faces, aided by the voices of Oscar-winners Ben Kingsley (Bagheera the panther) or Lupita Nyong’o (Raksha, Mowgli’s lupine mother).
Most of the songs have been cut. Baloo mumbles part of “The Bare Necessities,” and Kaa drones “Trust In Me” over the end credits. Louie half-chants “I Wanna Be Like You” to Mowgli, using lyrics unheard in the softer 1967 version. (Walt Disney died while producing it but insisted it shouldn’t scare kids.)
The King Kong-like ape has the mad arrogance of a Goliath facing little David, demanding something Mowgli cannot do. So like all who challenge the chosen of God – even the jungle’s gods – Louie must be toppled. This story is a new look at a narrative that was already ancient when Kipling wrote 12 decades ago.
The Jungle Book
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Neel Sethi and the voices of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Christopher Walken.
Director: Jon Favreau.
Length: 105 minutes.
Rating: PG (some sequences of scary action and peril).