Friday, September 16, 2016

Live-Action "The Jungle Book" Provides Fresh Take On Old Tale

Jon Favreau's take on The Jungle Book is pretty damn good.
In recent years, Disney has fully committed to remaking their animated films in live action. Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Maleficent, Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass, The Jungle Book and the recently released Pete's Dragon have already come out, and a slew of others, including the hotly-anticipated Emma Watson-led Beauty and the Beast, are in the pipeline.

The strategy makes sense. The six films Disney has already released have garnered upwards of $2.5 billion worldwide. Why attempt to create something new when that kind of lucrative layup is right there for the taking?

I'm generally ambivalent about the concept of remakes, although I'll cop to preferring an artistically legit, non-monetary reason for making one. I prefer remakes that improve upon flawed films in some way (Ocean's 11), bring great stories to a larger audience (e.g. Insomnia, The Departed), or add some new wrinkle or point of view. For all its flaws, Maleficent accomplished that last point, while films like Cinderella and Alice and Wonderland felt like pure cash grabs through and through.

Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book proves itself worthy. The fact that effects have advanced to the point that this world can be believably rendered in "live action" could justify a remake on its own, but the film seals the deal by taking a decidedly modern approach to a story that has long been stuck in antiquated and offensive concepts of racial superiority. As originally conceived by Rudyard Kipling and then reiterated in the 1967 animated version, this story has historically advocated that we all need to be put in our proper place. It's imperialistic propaganda, a creed against social upheaval that simultaneously implies primitive cultures need to adopt Western advancements.

Throughout the film, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is chastised for utilizing ingenuity to accomplish tasks because "it's not the wolf way" to use such tricks. Seeing the inherent benefits of what Mowgli does, Baloo (Bill Murray) reacts by saying "who cares?" And that's definitely the viewpoint this version hammers home. It follows the "you do you" ideology, suggesting that differences are to be celebrated and that nobody has to fit into predetermined boxes.
It's crazy scary how much of Christopher Walken's actual face the mo-cap
people transferred to King Louie.

From a plot perspective, the most interesting thing this version does occurs at the end. In the original text, Mowgli uses fire to best Shere Khan, achieving supremacy over the animal kingdom by embracing civilization. This results in him being forced to leave the jungle and be with man where he never really fits in anyway. As a result, he becomes a being with no nation.

That's far more tragic than the animated film many of us are most familiar with. In that version, the fire doesn't distance Mowgli from his friends, but he does make the decision to embrace humanity and civilization anyway, because it's what is best for him. In other words, he steps into the predetermined box he belongs in.

Here, Mowgli definitely learns to appreciate his position as man, but, ever the noble savage, he avoids distancing himself from the animals by rejecting fire and avoiding the corruption that comes with civilization. As what is essentially a mouthpiece for Kipling's original vision, Shere Khan (Idris Elba) has spent the entire movie warning against that corruption, and, yet, when Mowgli throws man's red flower away and proves him wrong, he says it's the stupidest thing the mancub could've done. Neither Khan nor Kipling understand the outside the box thinking.

There is so much going on here thematically, that it's hard to believe this is a kids movie. For instance, some could argue that Shere Khan functions as a stand-in for current isolationist politicians that prey on fears related to immigration and race. Others might see allusions to gun control or technology run amok in Mowgli's decision to reject fire and the power and adjoining distance that come with it.

That being said, this isn't some heady experience. Like the animated film, this new version is a ton of fun, and it even offers it's own renditions of "Bear Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You." The vocal performances of both Murray (soulful conman) and Elba (seriously terrifying) are the undeniable highlights of the voice cast, but Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken and Scarlett Johansson do strong work as Bagheera, King Louie, and Kaa. I particularly appreciate how Walken's interpretation of King Louie as a sort of mob heavy sidesteps the distracting racial controversy surrounding the animated version of the character.

The effects in this thing are ridiculously good most of the time, and this is probably the best use of this technology since Life of Pi (reviewed here) or Avatar. However, there are moments where the cracks show, which are extra noticeable since the other moments around those moments have been so good. Fortunately, Sethi, the one real thing on screen, is up to the task of carrying the movie. His authenticity goes a long way toward selling this whole endeavor as a family experience fully worthy of your time. A-