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!