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The Jungle Book

April 15, 2016
The Jungle Book

After getting blasted by a wide range of not-me critics for making Cowboys & Aliens, Iron Man director Jon Favreau took a sabbatical from big-budget CGI-fests and got back to his indie, character-driven roots with Chef. But now he’s back, helming Disney’s latest liveish-action reworking of one of their old animated properties: The Jungle Book. And I couldn’t be happier to see the final product.

I was disappointed when Cinderella did precisely nothing interesting with the story, especially after it followed on the heels of Maleficent turning the milquetoast Sleeping Beauty story into a rape-revenge allegory. On that story level, The Jungle Book falls closer to the Cinderella end of the spectrum, largely retreading the same story beats as the 1967 version.

But while the plot remains the same, the tone is wildly different. This is not a cartoonified romp, and while it easily gets a PG rating, the action could easily overwhelm some younger audiences at points. It’s a romp, still sometimes a bit aimless, as it’s adapted from a few barely-related short stories, but filled with plenty of adventure that isn’t afraid to turn dark where it helps tell the story. Idris Elba brings real menace to his voice work as Shere Khan; Scarlett Johansson is creepier as Kaa than John Fiedler could ever manage; and Christopher Walken turns King Louie into almost as much of a threat to young Mowgli (Neel Sethi) as Shere Khan.

In fact, reworking Louie from a broadly stereotyped nightclub band leader orangutan (voiced by Louis Prima when the character was introduced in the 1967 adaptation) into the Gigantopithecus boss of a monkey mob is a sign that Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks are at least aware of the racial overtones that trace back to the roots of Kipling’s stories, and that ’60s Disney didn’t really fix. Which is not to say that this version fixes them either, so much as it plays them down to the extent that it’s possible.

Underneath it all, we still have the story of an uncivilized jungle, populated by scattered, insular tribes. Most of them are good, and have a certain savage nobility, but they’re open to domination and exploitation by warlords. Until, that is, a civilized man(-cub), raised among the natives (Kipling himself was born in Bombay), with his superior intelligence and ingenuity unites the tribes and overthrows the despotic Khan. As an allegory, it’s clearly a justification of the British Raj, and of colonialism in general.

And yet, well, the Raj was itself overthrown more than 70 years ago now. Which is not to say that colonialism doesn’t still have lasting effects in today’s world; I’m hardly going to say that anyone who shies away from The Jungle Book over that issue is wrong to do so. But along with colonialism, Kipling was one of the strongest exponents of a certain Victorian-era stoicism, best summed up in his poem “If—”.

It’s this thread that Favreau brings to the forefront: Mowgli’s moral growth into well-balanced manhood. From his adoptive mother, Rakhsha (Lupita Nyong’o), Mowgli learns the value of family, while the pack leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) teaches the interrelationship between the individual and his society. Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) provides the strongest guidance between right and wrong, while Baloo (the perfectly-cast Bill Murray) reminds Mowgli that it’s just as important to relax, and not take any of that too seriously.

It’s in that balance between strength and flexibility that the movie finds Kipling’s ideal. And, for all his other flaws, there’s still something to recommend that lesson from his writing. Favreau’s adaptation may not quite escape the colonialist roots, but it minimizes their importance to the moral this movie advances.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test:

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