Table Talk: The Jungle Book (2016)

Anton: The Jungle Book received glowing reviews from critics when it was released in mid-April, and since then it has racked up an impressive box office tally (nearly $300 million as of May 12). By most accounts, The Jungle Book is another triumph for Disney, and another success in their emergent twenty-first-century line of live-action remakes or reimaginings of their animated classics (such as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 2010 and Maleficent’s revision of Sleeping Beauty in 2014). I was a strong admirer of Kenneth Branagh’s faithful rendering of Cinderella (released last March), but Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book left me rather cold. Counter to the prevailing sentiment, I would argue that The Jungle Book is not a triumph of children’s fiction filmmaking, but rather an overly-calculated franchise juggernaut that falters as either a remake or reimagining of Disney’s 1967 animated film.

Aren: It’s a film beleaguered by cross-purposes, in terms of both filmmaking and theme. It both is and isn’t a musical. It’s live action, but it’s also mostly animated. It shoehorns in an environmental message about the dangers of humanity, but then retroactively ignores its own lesson for the sake of an action climax. It is occasionally dazzling in terms of craft, but it’s a muddled film overall.

What kind of film is The Jungle Book? Does it even know?

Anton: For the purposes of our conversation, I’m not going to judge the 2016 movie as an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s collections of stories. Kipling’s Jungle Book (1894) seems to be one of those classics everyone knows but fewer have actually read, and, moreover, most adults, and many children, will be going into this new version with Disney’s earlier version primarily in mind. I know I did.

My memories of the 1967 animated movie are dominated by the presence of Shere Khan (voiced by the great George Saunders), the jazzy songs, the Beatles-esque vultures, and, perhaps above all, by its poignant opening and ending that address the incompatibility of man and nature.

This new, still-mostly-animated version is a hodgepodge of elements, and a mix of repetition and revision in relation to the earlier film. Most significantly, the new film lacks the tinge of tragedy that shades the earlier film. Mowgli does not have to leave the jungle.

Aren: The new ending is one of those elements that sticks in my craw. I’m fairly lukewarm on the old Disney Jungle Book. I remember enjoying the songs as a kid, but on my most recent rewatch, the film seemed overly lazy in structure and animation. It was already starting to show the seams of Disney’s fallow period of the 1970s and 1980s.

Anton: I admit, it’s been years since I saw it.

Aren: However, one thing I always admired about the old Disney film is the ending, where Mowgli has to leave the jungle. He’s a human, after all, and no matter how much he enjoys hanging out with Baloo and playing with the elephants, he does not belong among the animals. Bagheera is right. He has to leave.

Favreau’s film completely loses this poignant ending about adjusting to the realities of life as a human being. As such, it loses any meaningful commentary about humanity’s relationship to nature and the ways that humans are frankly incompatible and even harmful to the animal world.

Anton: In some sense, the new film really struggles with what is the difference between human beings and animals, and seems to only weakly assert technology as the human difference. Consequently, all Mowgli has to do is learn to use tools—most importantly fire—well, and then everything should be just peachy. But even that theme doesn’t play out cleanly in the film.

Similarly inconsistent is the film’s sense of its own nature. It’s been sold as another “live-action” redo of an animated film, but it’s actually mostly animated. That’s not necessarily a problem, but don’t pretend like this isn’t all CGI.

Aren: I actually think people should describe it as an animated movie. Aside from Mowgli, almost everything is computer-generated. Even more than Avatar, this film exists entirely within the confines of the digital artist’s computers. This isn’t a problem, but it demonstrates the increasing difficulty of distinguishing between animation and live action. Usually, what fuels the distinction is the intended audience: if it’s for children, it’s animated. If it’s for adults, it’s not. As this Jungle Book is definitely aimed at children, I don’t see why it wasn’t marketed straight-up as a hyper-realistic animated film.

Anton: It’s interesting that a film’s own assertion of its realism seems to define whether it is considered live action or animation. Nowadays, in some sense, an animated film is one that openly admits, primarily through visual stylization, its construction through the process of animation. In contrast, live action movies try to conceal their means. In reality, it’s a spectrum, not a binary.

I’m also bothered by the new Jungle Book’s status as a musical. It doesn’t want to be a musical, but at the same time it cannot let go of all the songs from the older version. Why get rid of the songs and then keep two? One of the songs works diegetically, but King Louie’s song was a very poor choice to keep and it makes no sense within the world of the film.

Aren: I think that if the film had left out the “Bare Necessities,” people would have been disappointed since the song is so iconic. I didn’t mind its presence in the film. Favreau figures out a justified and clever means of having it, with Baloo singing it while he floats down the river with Mowgli. It fits the character to sing it in this manner, and for it to be a diegetic song lacking much of the orchestral push of a proper musical number. Not only do the lyrics speak to Baloo’s philosophy, but the manner in which he sings it also reveals how he lives his life.

Conversely, the presence of “I Wanna Be Like You” is baffling. I always enjoyed the song in the animated version, but it’s not an essential song and choosing to include it as a proper musical number fits awkwardly with the tone of the scene. This version of King Louie is terrifying, hiding in the shadows like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, but he’s still inspired by Louis Armstrong like in the animated film. He’s scary, but he still sings this ludicrous song (with uncomfortable racist undertones) and it breaks the tone of the film. It feels wrong. It’s indicative of the entire film’s inability to nail down a tone.

Anton: And Walken speak-sings the whole thing, making it even more bizarre. We forgot to mention that Scarlett Johansson sings Kaa’s song during the end credits.

Speaking about this film’s sinister version of King Louie, there has been a lot of talk about this movie being too dark for kids. I disagree. I think kids need some scares in their tales, but we also shouldn’t overlook that the film contains the requisite “zany” humour that these sort of family movies require today. And, like most animated movies today, the voice cast had to include big names.

Aren:I think the CGI, although occasionally stunning, is a great indication of this film’s muddled approach. Just as aspects of this traditionally carefree story are presented in an overly serious way here (e.g. Mowgli’s origin, the wolfpack’s code, Shere Khan), the animation is trying hard to be realistic. But even though the animals look like their real life counterparts, they’re still anthropomorphized and move their mouths to talk. They exhibit cartoonish characteristics, but look like animals in a nature doc. It’s a weird mingling of disparate approaches and lends an uncanny aspect to the animation. When the animals talk, it doesn’t look quite right.

Anton: It actually reminded me of the look of Babe, which always felt uncanny, but which I actually really like. Do you see a similarity?

Aren: I see a similarity, but Babe exists in a very domestic world, one that is meant to be almost identical to our own. The animals do not talk to the humans, only to each other. Thus, the uncanny look of their mouths moving seems appropriate as it’s a visualization of something we never notice in real life, which is animals communicating with each other.

The Jungle Book is a deliberate fantasy world, so I don’t understand why the filmmakers decide to go with such a strange look for the animal’s speech, when they easily could have loosened up the animation a tad and negated any lingering strangeness.

The action is inflated.

Anton: The film also suffers from what you might call “inflated action syndrome.” A prime example of this phenomena is Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which takes a story with zero battles and adds a big clash of armies to the ending. I admired the flood at night scene in The Jungle Book, with the buffalo herd walking along the cliff, but the movie’s climax had to become a big disaster. We are no longer content with the idea of Shere Khan being afraid of fire, and instead half the jungle must burn down in order to make a suitably “action-packed” ending to justify theatre attendance.

Aren: Favreau takes every opportunity here to turn a normal scene into an action scene. Often, it’s unjustified. Mowgli training with his wolf pack becomes an action scene of him racing through the trees like Tarzan. Mowgli getting honey from a beehive for Baloo is played for suspense. There are a few carefree moments in this film, but they’re few and far between as the film usually inflates the drama of any given scene to turn it into a climax. In the old film, Shere Khan is threatening, but he’s also stately. He usually doesn’t turn physically violent because he knows mere threats of violence achieve his ends. Here, Shere Khan kills wantonly and is always prowling and roaring. I enjoyed Elba’s vocal performance, but the character’s menace is too often amplified, when a simmer could’ve been more effective.

As for the flood and fire at the end, they’re visually captivating, but they undo the film’s message about the destructiveness of humanity’s fire. For the majority of the runtime, we’re told that fire is evil and that is destroys everything in its wake. Humanity might be able to make fire, but it cannot control it. So when Mowgli steals fire from the human village and uses it to attack Shere Khan, it inevitably sparks a wildfire, demonstrating its chaotic nature. This is a potent way to show that human ingenuity has a dark side.

However, the film undoes this thematic impact by having Mowgli use the fire to kill Shere Khan (instead of scaring him away as in the old movie). It becomes essential to his triumph and the elephants effortlessly douse the wildfire with a flood. This negates the impact of Mowgli’s actions and undoes the message of humanity’s destructiveness. Although Bagheera and the other animals have continually told us that humans and their fire are dangerous, the ending actually demonstrates that fire is not inherently bad and that it’s actually useful to kill the tiger.

Anton: It makes sense that a film that is a product of so much technology would ultimately have to endorse technology.

Aren: That’s true. I also don’t like how Mowgli’s origin is linked to Shere Khan. It’s an example of “shrinking universe syndrome,” where every character is contrivedly interconnected and every motivation is overly personal. Shere Khan’s hatred of humans is understandable even without the personal link of Mowgli’s father having burned his face.

The themes are hollow.

Anton: The film’s ambivalent approach to the dangers of technology is indicative of its muddled themes in general. It wants to have weight, but it also wants to reassure its audience that there really is no conflict between humankind and the natural world. As I already mentioned, the new film generally lacks the earlier movie’s poignant sense of tragedy.

Aren: I’ve already discussed how the climax neuters the film’s message and that Mowgli staying in the jungle is thematically shallow. I also think Neel Sethi’s performance as Mowgli is fairly dreadful. It’s as if he based his entire performance around Jake Lloyd’s delivery of “Yippee!” in The Phantom Menace.

Anton: I wasn’t pleased with the rather lame message about everyone working together, when all the animals set aside their differences to fight Shere Khan. Wolves are predators, and so the other animals are food for them. Yes, during droughts animals have been known to drink together, and yes, a children’s film doesn’t need to get all Werner Herzog, but let’s not pretend that the truly wonderful balance of natural ecosystems is not contingent on violent death and scavenger’s picking bones.

Aren: The jungle community introduced in this film is indistinct, even though it’s packed to the brim with characters and rules like the wolves’ code, the respect for the elephants, and the water truce. I find it interesting that Disney is even more neutered in their depictions of nature than they used to be. Compare The Jungle Book’s depiction of the coexistence of predators and prey to The Lion King’s depiction of the same. In The Lion King, Mufasa explains to Simba that their eating of the antelopes does not undo the balance of the wild, because when they die, they turn into dirt, out of which the grass grows that the antelopes eat. The film shows that animals eating each other animals does not disrupt balance, nor is it inherently barbaric. It’s the Circle of Life.

Anton: Yup. And death is a key phase in that circle, not an unavoidable problem.

Aren:The Lion King offers a far more elegant encapsulation of death and nature than the strange hodgepodge of rules in The Jungle Book, which shifts the relationships of the animals depending on the context and argues that the root of Shere Khan’s villainy is in his predilection to kill lower animals.

Anton: The themes that are injected are not, in my opinion, proper “updates” to the story, but rather awkward and forced efforts to achieve “relevance,” because we can no longer take an old story on its own terms. All works are of their time, in one way or another, but that doesn’t mean that all that does not conform to our times must be erased.

Aren: As well, the distillation of humanity’s essential nature to its use of tools is inaccurate. Plenty of monkeys and birds use tools. The difference between humans and animals cuts deeper than humanity’s use of technology.

Anton: So, in this Jungle Book, we get a weak utopian ending about everyone just needing to work together. Mowgli can be a vital element in this natural world, using his tools for good and not for bad.   

The burden of franchise filmmaking.

Anton: All this points to a film that cannot shake the burden of franchise filmmaking. The villainous tiger cannot simply be afraid of fire because that won’t create the event the budget (and audience) demands. And of course Mowgli cannot leave the jungle. Otherwise we couldn’t get The Jungle Book 2.

Aren: Every movie has to spawn a franchise nowadays. Even though Disney is not wanting for franchises what with their domination of Marvel and Star Wars, Disney cannot allow a film to exist as a solitary property. I won’t be surprised when the sequel comes out in two years time, with a new predatory animal posed as the great threat to the balance of the jungle. I just hope they don’t bungle the message again.

Anton: I believe they already announced it.

I would hold up last year’s Cinderella as a counterbalance to The Jungle Book, showing that a good film can still be made within the Hollywood system, and one that respects and understands, and doesn’t simply mine, its source material. But such a film requires a few firms choices—not waffling—and trust in the story itself, and not just in its potential for spectacle. For example, Cinderella largely avoided the addition of battles and inflated action. But as I said at the end of my review for Cinderella: “not every Disney fairy tale classic needs the live-action treatment.” Sadly, I think Beauty and the Beast is up next. I’d say Pete’s Dragon, which comes out in August, but who are we kidding. That was never a classic.

The Jungle Book (2016, USA)

Directed by Jon Favreau; written by Justin Marks, based on the book by Rudyard Kipling; starring Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken.