Film, Reviews, Screen

The Jungle Book review — a wonderful, big thinking family movie

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Rudyard Kipling enthusiasts might like to think the words “The Jungle Book” trigger memories of the Nobel Prize-winning English author’s children’s stories. They are more likely to summon visions of an animated anthropomorphic bear singing about The Bear Necessities, recalling the most famous sequence from Disney’s hand-drawn 1967 musical.

What if Kipling’s animal kingdom was newly adapted using contemporary technology (applying photo-realistic CGI images) but inhabitants of this world — one furry fellow in particular — somehow knew of the existence of the song?

Thus it is so in director’s Jon Favreau’s computer-lacquered live action version, a mighty, majestic beast of a family film that slightly tailors the appearance of its animal characters to the face of their voice actors. Baloo, voiced by Bill Murray, now has sad world-weary eyes: all that unfulfilled longing for honey must have got to him.

At an early point Baloo hums The Bear Necessities tune and croons a few lines under his breath; at least for the time being, no more is made of it. It is a small but great touch, linking the original source material and its more recent film incarnation as if by some intangible osmosis or feedback loop, connected by song and spirit.

Later Baloo actually sings it, but not in the reality-bending sense of musical theatre. He performs the song as he floats down a river on his back, as one might sing in the shower. Later, more than half way into the running time, a strange scene transpires that would send any other movie spiralling into an existential crisis.

Mowgli is hauled in to meet King Louie, a colossal orangutan-like ape. Louie cuts an imposing presence and is introduced sitting in the darkness of a huge cave, bathed in shadows. Christopher Walken is his wise guy-sounding voice: a vocal performance so good, and so effortlessly scenery-chewing, the actor must at least be partly responsible for what happens next.

Louie is desperate to obtain the power of the “red flower” — what we human beings know as fire — and use it to rule the jungle. So desperate, he starts singing I Wanna Be Like You. Not in the way we witnessed Baloo take the stage before — as an activity that can plausibly take place within the established parameters of this universe — but in a way that transforms the entire damn movie into a musical. But just (with the exception of some delightfully animated closing credits) for a single scene.

It’s calculated madness in a wonderful, big-thinking family film, unafraid to grapple light and dark elements and fitted with a curious message about progress. Mowgli, raised by wolves, is scolded by his father/sage like figure, the black panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) whenever he attempts to use his human “tricks”, like tying ropes and creating containers.

Man’s inventions do not, Bagheera reasons, belong in the jungle, insinuating every human invention ultimately leads to the red flower — which is to say, destruction. But when Mowgli breaks the rules and rescues a baby elephant using said ropes, that message becomes a little more complicated and takes on moral nuances.

If you can’t use technology to make lives better, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks seem to be saying, why use it at all? And conversely, if you have technology that can improve somebody else’s lives, why not use it for this purpose?

There’s quite a lot of iceberg under the tip of Favreau’s Jungle Book, though an enhanced subtext doesn’t clutter what is ostensibly a strung-together series of vignettes. This time around they are given smoother flow and momentum as well a better arc; the 1967 version is rather choppy and episodic.

Inspired by technical achievements pulled off in Gravity and Life of Pi, The Jungle Book’s photo-real effects are wonderful — clearly some kind of high-water mark. In Favreau’s hands the film feels like a realistically shot children’s picture book; something of a paradox.

But, like Walken’s incredible song-and-dance routine, it works. Watching The Jungle Book feels like falling into the pages of a surreal all-creatures-great-and-small alternate world: as if the bedrock of Kipling has been infused with the gorgeous textures of a Graeme Base illustration.

10 responses to “The Jungle Book review — a wonderful, big thinking family movie

  1. As a Cub scout leader this is what we need to raise awareness of the back story of the Cub section. With this being the 100th year of Cubs in Australia, I suspect many Cub packs will be attending.

    Hopefully Kaa is not the complete villain he was portrayed in the Disney film as he was a rather distant character in the original books.

    A piece of trivia for you, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Baden-Powell were friends and this is why the Cub section in Scouts is based on Kipling’s Jungle Book stories.

  2. For what age group would this movie be suitable? (ie. is there any content that would be distressing for pre-school or kinder aged children?)

  3. A beautiful and thoughtful review which doesn’t dismiss this – and Zootopia – as children’s films. Thank you Luke

  4. Well for once I largely agree with Luke. It’s a very enjoyable well put together film. Gotta love Murray as Baloo – he was born to play this character!

    The only note I’d make is that it might be a bit scary in parts for the sub 7yo group buttony in a couple of bits.

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