Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 16, 2016 2:46 pm 
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Mowgli's kicked out of the jungle again

However far new versions may stray from Rudyard Kimpling's original books or true tales of humans raised by animals or in the state of nature, they have this fascination of plunging us into a wild animal kingdom and considering the vexed question of man's place in it. In this new Disney production CGI reigns, and so does the Sixties Disney animated film, which it copies, just putting in more epic chase scenes, as is the modern custom, leaving less space for songs, though they linger on, in vestigial form, or for lightheartedness and humor. What we get here is an extended demonstration of the current state-of-the-art ability to make digitally created animals look real. This was first really striking and more impressive, because simpler, and all staged on a boat, in Ang Lee's stunning 2012 film adaptation of Yann Martel's Life of Pi. This time there are lots of animals, and they talk, English, a lot. And that's okay because they're talking to the human man-cub, Mowgli.

At first I was shocked at the poor image quality: everything seemed to have a chalky patina, like a faded color photograph. But that sorted itself out, and the animals looked handsome, while the boy Mowgli is a real boy acting amid the computer effects. He's played by Indian-American Neel Sethi, a relaxed charmer, at ease in the CGI jungle and putting us at ease watching him. He isn't athletic, as was the Forties discovery for these roles, Sabu,* but he makes an appealing Everyboy. Many of the animal voices are old favorites and also first-rate: notably Ben Kingsley as Bagheera the noble panther who originally turned foundling Mowgli over to the wolves to be raised; Idris Elba as Shere Khan, the great tiger who wants Mowlgi dead for complex, partly justifiable reasons; Bill Murray as the lazy but brave bear Baloo, Chris Walken as the megalomaniac, gangsterish giant ape King Louie, residing in a ruined temple; and Scarlett Johansson as the seductive, devouring python Kaa. Murray and Walken are particularly fine, very much themselves creating character in a few deft strokes. The narrative in which one after another of these beasts is involved with Mowgli is good storytelling. Until it no longer is, when the overblown action turns numbing. The film is a reasonable 105 minutes long, but I was not, I fear, sorry to see it end, given the wearying jungle travelogue and conventional finale.

The ruling beasts urge Mowgli to leave the jungle and return to the man-village from which he came as a tyke because of his "tricks." They mean his use of tools, like ropes from vines and a bucket from a large shell. (Baloo differs, not minding them so long as Mowgli uses them to get him more honey.) I guess the objection is "tricks" aren't fair, because animals can't do them. This ignores Jane Goodall's discovery that chimps do make tools. This plot turn may mean that humans are of a discomfitingly higher order than other animals, an idea baldly stated by the old-fashioned, Raj-thumping Kipling. It could be a bat-squeak hint of the Global Warming warning, also intoned from the Bhagavad Gita after the Trinity atom bomb tests by J. Robert Oppenheimer: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Even a little boy destroys the jungle hierarchy by being too clever, and men have "the red flower," fire, the basic destroyer of worlds. So men don't fit in the Peaceable Kingdom and Mowgli gets cast out of Eden. Peaceable Kingdom? Well, not really; but Favreau's Jungle Book does take quite some while to get to a violent, murderous battle between beasts.

These are interesting ideas, and it's worth looking over the history of noble savages (such as Truffaut's, Burroughs' Tarzan (up for a star-studded new film treatment this summer) and contrasts between Disney and other Kipling-derived films, as discussed by Ryan Gilbey in the Guardian. But Favreau's movie is not an intellectual construct but a genial, entertaining treatment of a familiar theme. While reviewers have been justifiably admiring, those are right who say there's not enough reflecting today's sensibilities to distinguish this from Wolfgang Reitherman's 1967 animated Disney version. Except this one is in cineplexes worldwide, and selling lots of tickets. I personally remember not Disney but my grandmother reading me Kipling, when I was seven, and of that only Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the brave mongoose that fought the big cobra.

The Jungle Book, 105 mins., opens in many, many countries in April, May and June 2016.
*On YouTube at the moment you can watch Sabu in Elephant Boy (1937, complete), referred to in Gilbey's piece. You can also watch Truffaut's austere, disturbing The Wild Child (1970) there in parts and via Project Gutenberg you can read Kipling's entire Jungle Book) online.


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