The failure of the movies is that no screenwriter or director has been willing to grapple with these notions, frequently choosing to portray the material in agonizingly straightforward narratives that sidestep the logistics. Most have been just outright bad, and while the famous cartoon version was at least colorful, its mix of wisecracking characters and jazzy musical numbers were in the service of lightweight family entertainment rather than thorough dramatic considerations. Now comes another adaptation of Kipling’s story – this time in CGI-infested live action – and once again the discomfort of Mowgli’s plight is front and center of a screen filled with dangers beyond suspicion. The format certainly amplifies the possibility; while the fallback of the original was that it all happened in a world of limitless cartoon reasoning, this latest endeavor takes us directly into to the jaws of a flesh and bone scenario. The fact that the CGI itself is a triumph of industry standard only strengthens the sentiment, and there are a plethora of moments where the interactions between Mowgli and a tiger are so deadpan that there is scarcely an opportunity to suspend disbelief, even for the sake of a seemingly innocent adventure.
The movie more or less retells the famous story without much deviation. The narrator is Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), a black panther who watches over the man cub in unending earnest; discovering him alone as an infant, he safeguards the boy by bringing him to a pack of wolves, who raise him in their image and accept him as part of a tribe of cunning jungle hunters (who have no problem keeping the company of other dangerous predators, no less). Director John Favreau exemplifies this detail in an opening scene that is exhilarating and impeccable; as Mowgli is chased through the jungles by Bagheera, their interactions are so convincing in the rush of trees and limbs and bushes that we lose sight of the immense illusion. What’s interesting – and perhaps paradoxical – is that only Mowgli, played by young Neel Sethi, is actually standing in front of the camera; the rest of the visuals, from animal characters to locales, are all part of a vast manipulation of green screens, and Favreau’s visual effects artists are seamless with their integration. Those sentiments are echoed even in slower moments; when poor Mowgli is asked to recite the chant of the wolves as a reminder of what it means to be in the jungle, his backdrop retains a certain air of legitimacy, as if he just walked into a National Geographic special.
The conflict arises when the man cub’s safety is threatened by a tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who arrives during a drought and reminds the jungle’s animals that among the laws they all share, the most important demands that no man can go on living among them. Why, others ask? His is a threat too great to risk passive acceptance, a notion emphasized by the forbidden nature of man’s “red flower,” which has been known to spread and consume all living things. Khan’s demands are thrown back by Akela, the leader of the wolves, who refuse to see the human creature as anything more than just an extension of their family. A conundrum arises: if he stays with the wolves, he endangers himself and all those he calls family. If he leaves, he risks falling right into Khan’s path, which may be more preferable a fate than wandering among strange men whom he has never shared interactions with anyway.
There is a journey – and an ensuing chase – that involves the key characters leaping from one obstacle to the next, usually while meeting new colorful creatures in the forest and getting separated in an elaborate series of confusing events (one, involving a stampede right into a collapsing riverbank, is particularly exciting). Among them: Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), a snake who entices Mowgli into her coils with stories of his origins; King Louie (Christopher Walken), a large ape obsessed with learning how to make fire; and Baloo (Bill Murray), an aloof bear who thinks, acts and engages in conversation exactly as you would expect any Bill Murray character to do: with some level of cheeky self-awareness. Many of the familiar staples of the animated endeavor are present as well, including a series of musical cues that recall the score of the original. But what motived these filmmakers to pander to the fans of the earlier film so blatantly by including some of the actual songs? I suppose in the back of their minds, all of them knew that a live action “Jungle Book” in 2016 would have been a hard sell without some level of nostalgia driving it. The opening notes of the score are an effective nod, but the use of two famous numbers are not; they drag the material too far out of the pseudo-realistic setting, and are nothing more than elaborate distractions.
The entirety of the endeavor rests on the effectiveness, I think, of the visuals. They are an accomplishment to behold: believable, precise, intricate and colorful, where every move of a blade of grass or a hair on the back of a monkey seems less like a computer creation and more like a window into a an exciting habitat. Such consistent skill certainly propels the material beyond the point of limited perspective when it needs to; there are moments so thrilling and exciting that we almost forget about the uncertainty of rules, or why Mowgli is able to carry on verbal conversations with fanged beasts with little qualm or danger. That was not possible in less distinctive instances, and perhaps that makes this new “Jungle Book” the best possible film one could hope for about this strange story. Much of it remains beyond reasoning, but for a brief time there is an inkling to abandon the cynicism long enough to be swept up into the adventure, at least for a while. There is a fabulous scene during the climax in which the tiger and the man cub face off in the trees of a burning jungle, and for a brief instance it isn’t such a bother that such details are structured on elaborate improbabilities, because the visual artists sell an illusion of great technical dexterity that overshadows the limitations of the premise.
But that also only takes us so far before we have to ask ourselves: who could seriously absorb this story without raising an eyebrow or two, at least a little? Kipling’s source is a flawed mechanism that would need far too much in the way or rewrites or context tweaks to get us over the absurdity hump. The key is, can anyone behind the camera at least fill the foreground with enough value to subdue all those nagging questions we might still have? I think this is a movie that has incorporated all of those essentials. It is never boring nor meandering. The young actor who plays the lead is a bright and convincing star, and his animated friends, voiced by reputable actors, are great supporting players who elevate the mood into something of a good balance between comedy and danger. The adventure doesn’t stall like the cartoon version did, nor does the momentum get lost in episodic noise. When it comes to creating faithful screen adaptations of famous novels all while adding something fresh to the perspective, “The Jungle Book” conquers the summit of those challenges. Just don’t expect yourself to get any closer to finding a meaning to it all.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Adventure/Drama (US); 2016; Rated PG; Running Time: 105 Minutes
Neel Sethi: Mowgli
Bill Murray: Baloo
Ben Kingsley: Bagheera
Idris Elba: Shere Khan
Lupita Nyong’O: Raksha
Scarlett Johansson: Kaa
Giancarlo Esposito: Akela
Christopher Walken: King Louie
Produced by Molly Allen, John Bartnicki, John Favreau, Karen Gilchrist, Brigham Taylor and Peter M. Tobyansen; Directed by John Favreau; Written by Justin Marks; based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling