The Jungle Book (2016)

In the heart of jungle, a skinny boy is running with a pack of wolves.  Mowgli (Neel Sethi) scampers along happily, dashing into the tree tops to catch up to his four legged brothers.  But as he grabs a branch, it breaks, sending him tumbling to the ground. You need to watch yourself here.  You need your people to protect you.  Only, the man cub doesn’t really have a people.

When they hear ‘The Jungle Book’, most people think of the 1967 Disney version (myself included).  It brilliantly corrals Kipling’s loose collection of tales into a streamlined narrative, combining vivacious animation with a classic soundtrack.   Nearly fifty years on, Disney has reimagined the story once again.   Can you improve on perfection?  Not quite.  But you can give it a damned good go.

It certainly looks fantastic.  Yeah, I know I say that a lot, but it genuinely is stunning.  You could freeze frame any moment of this film and be left with something you could happily put up on your wall.  The lighting in particular is gorgeous, and wonderfully atmospheric.  This film is certainly scarier than the Disney version, and that had its moments.  The CGI is staggering – the very jungle itself has moods, by turns nurturing and destructive. The animals really seemed to occupy space, they had weight.  Impressive and a little ragged, they moved and interacted with their environment – and with Mowgli –  in a way that felt convincing.   I never once thought that anything I could see was not real, which is an incredible technical achievement.

The vocal work is also a big part of the story’s success.   Idris Elba is standout brilliant as Shere Khan – angry and sly and terribly dangerous.  Brilliant scene where he tells Akila and Raksha’s pups about the fickle nature of cuckoos…  Ben Kingsley was perfect as Bagheera, authoritative and benign, and a little bit stuffy.  I also enjoyed Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha.  Very little screen time, but her force of will really lingers in the memory: ‘He is mine to me.’  Was heart-breaking when Mowgli said he had to leave, and even more so when she realised he was right.  Bill Murray was wonderful as Baloo.  A bit of casting that seems really obvious when you hear it, but is actually very clever.  Everything about him is so removed from the regimented life of the wolf pack, and its law of the jungle (‘That’s just propaganda.’)  When he taught Mowgli how to sing by launching into ‘The Bear Necessities’, I felt 6 years old again.  Truly joyous stuff.   Christopher Walken was also great fun as King Louie, the wily old gangster.

The dialogue was animated very well.  It’s a unnatural thing, to show animals speaking, but it was carefully connected with body language and movement, and it felt organic.  It was less a case of ‘oh, the animals can speak’ than ‘we can understand the language of the animals’.  Only a subtle thing, but it combines with the voice work and the visuals to create a wonderfully cohesive, absorbing whole.

For the most part, the film stays true to the unsentimental view of Kipling and the Hindu folk stories he was working from.  Life is violent and confusing; order can be painful, but must be maintained because the alternative is complete destruction.  There’s no real good and evil, merely what works and what doesn’t.  It’s shown time and again that Mowgli does not belong in the jungle.  He can’t keep up with the wolves, because he isn’t as fast or as strong.  He uses his human ‘tricks’ to get by, but these only mark him as an outsider.  His pack can no longer protect him: even a mother’s love can’t undo the settled order of things.

Shere Khan does have a point: soon the boy will become a man.  As the story progresses, Mowgli becomes an increasingly disturbing force.  He cuts down a single vine to reach some fruit, later he cuts down dozens of honeycombs.  In escaping King Louis, he brings a whole temple down, and his confrontation with Shere Khan destroys vast swathes of the jungle.  Most worryingly, he does all this by accident, completely unaware of the consequences of his actions.  Again, it’s not that man evil – he just needs to stay in his proper place.

So, I was a little disappointed by the ending, with Mowgli living happily ever after in the jungle.  I always enjoyed the bittersweet, complex resolution of the original stories – Mowgli has to accept his nature and return to live with his own kind.  But unlike the people of the village who learn to control fire, Mowgli throws it away – turning his back on his nature in order to live with the animals.  The cynic in me thinks this was done to leave the door open for potential sequels, rather than for the purposes of storytelling.  Hardly the worst thing in the world, but it did clash with the harsher tone of the rest of the film.

Still, that’s only a quibble, and it didn’t remove the smile from my face.  I saw this in a cinema full of parents and kids, and barely heard a peep – surely that’s the highest praise possible.

What did you think?  Did you enjoy the backstory of Mowgli and Shere Khan?  Were you convinced by the animation?  Did you have ‘Wanna Be Like You’ in your head for hours afterwards?  Let me know!

The Night Manager (BBC1)

If a great injustice happened to someone you cared about, how far would you go to make it right?

When he tries to do the decent thing, hotel manager Jonathan Pine finds his quietly ordered life turned upside down in this cracking six part adaptation of the John le Carré novel.   An encounter with a beautiful woman encourages Pine to take a risk, and he tries to prevent a tyrant acquiring the means to brutally supress a burgeoning revolution.  But actions have consequences, and as he pursues the spider at the centre of the web – brilliant, ruthless Richard Roper – Pine is drawn into the ruthless world where international politics meets the illegal arms trade.

Things started well, and kept on going, as episode one gently introduces Pine and Sophie, their coming together and her brutal demise.  Then the crash-bang as Roper reappears in Pine’s life, setting them both on a collision course.  Those last 20 minutes were astonishing, as Pine and Roper actually meet for the first time, each trying to get a read on the other while hiding who they themselves really are.

The ebb and flow of the story was brilliantly handled, with Pine trying to infiltrate Roper’s inner circle and smuggle out enough intel to bring him down.   Roper’s world slowly disintegrates as loyalties are tested and divided, and people are forced to see parts of themselves – and each other – that they had been happy to ignore. It was all fantastically tense, and enjoyably complex.  There were sharks and shadows on the outside too, as Burr and Steadman run up against powerful forces in government who are quite determined to ensure that Roper stays exactly as he is.

Bit random, but I really loved the title sequence.  Chilly and stylish, with images of weapons transforming into objects of luxury and vice versa: a china tea set became a Gatling gun, and a line of battleships morphs into the bubbles in a glass of champagne.  It hints at Ropers lifestyle and profession, but also at his skewed moral viewpoint.  The battleships and tea-set can only transform because we’re looking down at them from high above.  Nothing’s evil when you’re too far away to see the consequences.   Until it all comes crashing down of course…

I also liked how it wasn’t the law or any great act of state that brought Roper down, but a handful of people determined to do the right thing (helped along by Ropers own greed and callousness). Yet he is ultimately punished, not by the system, but by the very people he used to do business with.  It’s a pleasingly complex resolution.  We’re glad Roper will be punished, but it’s a bit worrying that the law is so powerless against such people.  I doubt his captors will be gentle – is that justice?  And what if he somehow buys his way out of it?  Or someone just as bad simply takes his place?   I suppose Pine gets what he set out for – that’ll have to do.

Nothing’s simple in this world.  People are conflicted, their motives hidden and confused.  Burr wants to make her loyal husband happy, but can’t just sit back with Roper still at large.  Roper wants to control his perfectly ordered world, yet he thrives on chaos.  Pine wants to avenge the woman he loved, but is he perhaps looking for a purpose in life?  ‘I was living half a life when you found me. I have nothing to lose.’

The story constantly draws convincing parallels between the personal and the political.  There is truth and simplicity only in moments, time makes liars of us all.  Perspective matters, and no one is entirely sure of anything.  Why has Burr so much faith in Pine?  Would Jed go back to blissful ignorance if she could?  On a grander scale, people like Roper can only operate because governments would rather not ask too many questions.  And perhaps it’s always been this way.  Roper compares himself and Pine to Churchill and Lawrence, drawing out boarders on the back of a napkin.

All the characters were brilliantly realised.  Sharp, angry Corky; brilliant, stubborn Burr; bold, crusading Steadman.  I found myself really warming to Jed.   She swoops in on private helicopter, slender and tall, swaddled in expensive fur.  Initially presented as the empty-headed mistress (‘How are you getting on with those magazines, dear?’ sneers Roper), we soon realise she has her secrets too.  A terse phone call from home reveals she has left a son behind.  She sends money, but it’s been so long since she seen him that he’s stopped asking for her.  ‘You’re a dirty whore’, sobs her mother.  She obviously enjoys the lifestyle, and even seems to genuinely like Roper, but even in Switzerland she seems listless.  The longer we spend with Jed, the more interesting she gets.  Her relationship with Pine might have seemed inevitable, but it avoided cliché.  And that sad parting after a final night together was just perfect – things had run their course, but they had been through so much together it was a wrench to see it end.    Again, no simple solutions here, just surviving another day, a little older and wiser.

But really, this was always about Roper and Pine.   Great characters, great performers.  I haven’t seen Hugh Laurie since House, and I was delighted to see him do so well here.  The way he cracked in the end, screaming in the back of the van, was the closest thing to catharsis in the entire story.  And Pine.  His victory was fittingly muted, a moment of simple, perfect calm.  All terribly English.  Fantastic stuff!

What did you think?  Were you a bit sad to see Corky go?  Were you a bit confused as to where Burghati’s second £300,000,000 went?  Have I missed anything out?  Let me know!