Sunday, June 12, 2016

"The Jungle Book": review


I've come to the conclusion that Disney makes money from war. Specifically, it makes money from being at war with itself: if one message comes out of one side of Disney's mouth, via its movies, a completely different message comes out the other side. People flock to both types of movies, with their opposing messages, and Disney wins either way. By playing two sides like a rogue arms dealer, Disney has found the secret to making itself fantastically rich, especially as it's acquired certain properties over recent years. I think this realization has come to me now because I'm older, and when you're an older person watching entertainment, your attention focuses less on the visible puppets and more on the hidden puppeteers.

Consider Marvel and Lucasfilm, both of which have become Disney properties. Disney/Marvel is responsible for the Avengers and Captain America films. Disney/Marvel made "Captain America: Civil War," a movie in which we're given both the liberal and the conservative party lines (see my review of CACW here). "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" gives us a startlingly (for Hollywood) right-leaning, individualistic worldview; the Avengers films, meanwhile, reaffirm a sort of leftist/collectivist/teamwork approach to righting wrongs. Disney/Lucasfilm's "The Force Awakens" brings back all the swords-and-sorcery-in-space magic from your childhood. Meanwhile, for those in search of a Star Wars alternative that focuses more on Han Solo-ish rogues, there's Disney/Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy." Take your pick; Disney wins either way.

Having recently watched Disney's 2016 animal movie "Zootopia," and now having just watched Disney's 2016 live-action/CGI animal-movie remake "The Jungle Book," I was once again reminded of this Disney-at-war-with-itself theme. You'll recall how, in my review of "Zootopia," I said that that movie was ironically racist in its attempt to promote an anti-racism message. More important, the movie had a shamelessly modern, progressivist agenda. "The Jungle Book," which is a remake of the 1967 Disney animated film of the same name, swings in the opposite direction: far from showing us a utopia in which predators and prey live in utter harmony, "The Jungle Book," following Rudyard Kipling's original story collection, gives us something a little closer to the actual state of nature.

In this narrative universe, prey animals live in fear of predators, but all animals subscribe to a sacred "Law of the Jungle" and honor a truce that is governed by the appearance of a "peace rock" that sits in a lake and shows itself during the dry season, when the water level goes down. All the animals know that drinking comes before eating, and when the peace rock appears, the prey animals know they can all gather at the water's edge and drink together with no fear of being hunted by the predators. Predator and prey are clearly defined, and no one subscribes to the "Anyone can be anything" motto of "Zootopia"—with the possible exception of Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi), who knows he's different from the wolves that have raised him, but who considers himself part of the pack, a sentiment encouraged by his adoptive and protective wolf mother, Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o, with maybe a hint of Maz Kanata in her performance). But even if Mowgli might see himself as a wolf, most of the other animals do not, and one in particular is absolutely sure that Mowgli has no place in the jungle.

If you know Kipling's stories, then you know that this animal is Shere Khan the tiger (Idris Elba in full, imperious form; Elba also voiced Chief Bogo in "Zootopia"), who was burned by a flaming brand wielded by a human years ago. That human was none other than Mowgli's father, whom Shere Khan killed when Mowgli was still a baby. Shere Khan comes among the drinking animals and, in accordance with the Law of the Jungle and the peace-rock truce, promises to do nothing to Mowgli until the rains return and the peace rock has again sunk under the water. After that, it's open season on man-cubs because Shere Khan is determined that Mowgli should never grow up to become another weapon- and fire-using man. The wolves, realizing that, even collectively, they are no match for Shere Khan, debate on what to do. Mowgli voluntarily chooses to leave the pack, and his panther mentor Bagheera (Ben Kingsley, whose accent makes this the most dignified-sounding panther ever to be seen on film) guides Mowgli toward a nearby human village. Shere Khan, furious when he discovers that Mowgli has quit the wolf pack, kills the pack leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito, whose character in "Breaking Bad" died so memorably) and waits for news of Akela's death to bring a vengeful Mowgli back into the jungle.

Shere Khan also begins tracking Mowgli during Mowgli's trek toward human civilization; Mowgli and Bagheera become separated when the tiger finds the pair and attacks; the boy ends up alone, but is found by Kaa the hypnotic python (Jon Favreau regular Scarlett Johansson). Kaa puts Mowgli into a trance, giving him a vision of the night Shere Khan killed his father and was burned in the face. Right before the snake can eat Mowgli, however, the boy is saved by Baloo, a massive sloth bear (Bill Murray, in fine comic form) who claims to be gathering a stockpile of food in preparation for hibernation. Baloo, who can climb trees but isn't much of a climber when it comes to sheer cliffs, can't reach the giant beehives that are perched at the top of a rocky height, so he demands that Mowgli help him knock the hives down to repay Baloo's rescue of Mowgli from Kaa. Mowgli, being human, is a natural tool-builder (his building of tools was referred to as "tricks" by Akela, who felt that Mowgli should learn only the wolfish way of doing things), so he devises a way to hang over the cliff's edge and knock the hives down to the bottom, where the bear can get at them.

For a while, Mowgli and Baloo dawdle and speak of "the good life," but Bagheera reappears and refocuses Mowgli on the original mission: getting to the human village. Along the way, we discover that the most revered beasts in the jungle are the elephants, mainly because the elephants are the only creatures strong enough to alter terrain by uprooting trees, moving boulders, and digging furrows with their mighty tusks. All animals bow low when the elephants pass, but Mowgli has a chance to use his tool-building skills to help the elephants retrieve a calf that has fallen into a pit.

One diversion in the plot involves Mowgli's encounter with King Louie (Christopher Walken), a hulking Gigantopithecus who lusts after the "red flower," i.e., fire. Louie thinks that possessing fire will elevate him, as he puts it, to "the top of the food chain" and, Mafia-style, he offers Mowgli his protection from Shere Khan if Mowgli can provide him with fire. Mowgli, who had been kidnapped by Louie's monkey minions and brought to the abandoned Hindu temple that is his lair, is unable to provide fire (knowing nothing about it himself); Bagheera and Baloo arrive to rescue the human child, and when Louie rampages around the temple in an attempt to capture the boy, he ends up bringing the edifice down on himself.

The movie's final reel is devoted to what happens when Mowgli inevitably learns that his wolf-father Akela has been killed by Shere Khan. As predicted, Mowgli goes back into the jungle to face the tiger. While I won't spoil the specifics, I have to say that a crucial scene in that final battle reminded me strongly of the Borg queen's fate in "Star Trek: First Contact."

Jon Favreau, who directed this film, is no stranger to action movies. He oversees the proceedings with confidence, and his editing is superb. Like other forest heroes in Disney films, Mowgli moves through the jungle with the lithe coordination of a parkour champion. He might not run as fast as a wolf or a panther, but he can climb trees, swing from vines, and somersault over obstacles that would baffle or stymie most other quadrupeds. Favreau films these scenes—and there are a lot of them—in such a way as to convey a JJ Abrams level of energy and intensity; one remarkable scene involves Mowgli tumbling down a muddy escarpment and into a river; I was very impressed by the editing, which was simultaneously clear and just chaotic enough to heighten the viewer's sense of urgency.

An interesting bit of trivia is that the film was made entirely in Los Angeles. From the behind-the-scenes footage I've seen on YouTube, young Neel Sethi was pretty much alone and surrounded by green screens for almost all his time on camera. In other words, the jungle is almost entirely a CGI creation on the order of James Cameron's world-building in "Avatar" (reviewed here). The realism is amazing: the jungle, with its foliage and shafts of sunlight, feels palpably there. True, the CGI animals still look like CGI animals (mainly because they talk, which disrupts your suspension of disbelief; they do, however, move naturally), but the state of the art for CGI animation keeps improving, from year to year, at a Moore's-Law rate. It also helps that the animators choose not to make the animals overly anthropomorphic: you don't see Bagheera wearing an exaggerated smirk or Baloo grimacing in an overly human way. For the most part, the animals' facial musculature is treated with respect, and emotion is conveyed through other means, like body language and vocal tone.

I was also impressed by one fascinating and compelling detail: Mowgli is a human child, but he never once treats the animals like pets. There is no scratching between the ears or repeated fur-stroking—nothing to indicate human superiority. Mowgli does gently lay hands on some of the animals to convey love and warmth, but the gesture is never one of petting. The absence of this patronizing behavior speaks volumes, and the unspoken message is, in my opinion, far more powerful than the loud, ideological preaching in "Zootopia."

At the same time, the movie wasn't perfect, and it did make me wonder about certain things. How did Mowgli trim his fingernails? Why would he even need to do that, given that long fingernails would be seen by the other animals as proto-claws, and thus as a virtue? Why wasn't Mowgli's hair longer, after years of no cutting? Why do we never see the predators actually kill any prey? Why doesn't Mowgli lick his fellow animals as a function of cleaning and as an expression of care? I realize that answers to many of these questions have to do with what works and what doesn't work in a children's story (and besides, you can respond to my nitpicking with, "Why do the animals talk?"), but I wonder all the same.

Another question that came to mind was actually answered—sort of—in the film. Mowgli speaks English to all the animals that "have a language" (his words), and those animals talk back in English. I take it that, if we Muggles were to listen in on an actual Mowgli/animal conversation, we'd be hearing grunts, roars, and squeaks. My question, though, was: what language would Mowgli have spoken had he come face to face with a fellow human? Having grown up as a feral child since babyhood, Mowgli would never have learned English or Hindi or Punjabi. The movie answers this question by not answering it: Mowgli's journey takes him to the edge of human civilization, where he steals a burning torch to use against Shere Khan, but he never returns to the village, preferring to remain with his animal family.

Science-fiction writer David Brin wrote passionately on years ago about the difference between Star Trek lovers and Lord of the Rings lovers. Brin himself sided with the Trekkies: he saw LOTR as advocating an outdated, primitive, over-hierarchical, anti-technological, anti-scientific worldview, full of magic and superstition, not governed by the rational rules of nature, and not accessible via the scientific method. "Zootopia," by that reckoning, is more of a Trekkie-style movie, all modern and progressive; "The Jungle Book," by contrast, is more LOTR-style, given its animal hierarchies, its evocation of magic and religion (Kaa's hypnosis and the vision she gives Mowgli; the reverence that is shown to elephants), and its operatic emotionalism (go ahead: try not to well up when Mowgli is saying goodbye to his wolf-mother). Personally, I lean more toward LOTR than toward Trek, and I felt "The Jungle Book" was light-years better than "Zootopia."

Along with giving credit to Favreau for his assured direction, I tip my hat to all the voice actors, who successfully brought a wide range of jungle animals to life. Idris Elba was an outstanding villain; Ben Kingsley lent great authority and dignity to Bagheera the panther; Bill Murray was funny and sentimental as Baloo the sloth bear (alas, Korean audiences aren't sensitive to the fact that 90% of Murray's charm is in his unique cadence and intonation, which always contains at least a whiff of the sarcastic and the cynical). The animal animators also deserve credit for their realistic CGI renderings; in particular, King Louie the Gigantopithecus is one scary mo-fo. Which reminds me: little kids probably shouldn't see this movie. Although the actual violence is rather bloodless, there are many frightening scenes in which predators stalk their prey. King Louie starts off as a comic figure, but he quickly morphs into something terrifying when it's obvious he won't be getting his way. He goes back to being likable during the ending credits, but if you've brought a four-year-old along, he'll be too traumatized by the tiger, the python, and Louie's rampage to care at that point.

Neel Sethi, who debuts in this film and is one of only two live-action humans in the whole story, was decent as child-actors go. He had the same annoying tendency, which I saw in both a young Daniel Radcliffe and a young Macaulay Culkin, to be unable to hold his head completely still when either staring or delivering a line. There's a slight twitchiness there that's disturbing on a nearly subconscious level. Sethi's line deliveries were also occasionally forced, but overall, he was a fairly charismatic presence on screen, perhaps because he was—like Keanu Reeves—a much better physical actor than dramatic actor. I think he's got a pretty good career ahead of him.

So! Preachily progressive modernity or old-school mythicality? For me, it's no contest, and not just because I'm more partial to fantasy than to science fiction—there's an aesthetic reason as well: "The Jungle Book," unlike "Zootopia," doesn't violate the writerly maxim of "show, don't tell." "Zootopia," by contrast, runs roughshod over that principle and trips over itself in the process. So if you have a choice between two animal movies, and if you don't have any easily frightened children, go see "The Jungle Book." You'll be engrossed. You'll be wowed. You might even find yourself caring because no one's didactically shaking a finger at you.


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