The jungles that people experience nowadays are made of concrete. More time is spent climbing the corporate ladder than trees, and the world’s most famous tigers play golf and advertise corn flakes.
Mankind has forgotten what it is like to be at nature’s mercy, but Disney has not.
In the new live-action reboot of the classic animated film, “The Jungle Book,” Disney explores the wit and weakness of man in contrast with the majesty and raw power of Mother Nature.
Going into the film, I worried that it would be a strict, shot-for-shot remake of the 1967 cartoon; however, those fears were quickly allayed. While it retains the popular characters, songs and basic plot of the original, the new “The Jungle Book” focuses on the dangers of the wilderness in a film that is intense, awe-inspiring and has more in common with the “Planet Earth” documentary series than with its jazzy, musical predecessor.
“The Jungle Book” is a truly breathtaking movie. From muddy, rushing rivers to misty jungles, the depiction of India feels realistic yet mythical, as if something so beautiful couldn’t truly exist on our polluted planet.
The animals are convincingly lifelike and pose a visual treat, varying from Baloo’s (Bill Murray) lazy smile to the monstrously scarred visage of Shere Khan (Idris Elba). The audience sees the world from the perspective of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), and shares in his childhood wonder of the jungle and the animals who inhabit it.
The movie’s treatment of nature is respectful and often frightening, which helps to ground its serious tone and lends greater meaning to the film. When the bear, panther, tiger and wolves fight, they clash with such anger and ferocity that the audience is reminded of how ill-equipped humans are to fight for survival. Threats like stampedes and landslides wait around every corner, emphasizing the danger and unpredictability of nature.
As a human, Mowgli is at a physical disadvantage compared to his animal friends, and the film underscores the power of man’s cleverness as the boy is forced to create tools to survive. Humanity’s greatest tool, the “red flower” of fire, plays a central role in the film, conveyed as the destructive potential of man and the ultimate enemy of nature.
Despite the gravitas with which the film treats nature, it deftly couples levity with humor. Baloo’s laziness and carefree attitude remains the perfect outlet for comic relief. Although the new film deviates from the classic Disney musical spirit, two of the original film’s most popular songs make appearances.
Hearing Mowgli and Baloo sing “The Bare Necessities” while floating down a river will prompt nostalgic tingling from the audience’s childhoods. King Louie’s (Christopher Walken) song “I Wanna Be Like You” is subtler than Louis Prima’s original jazzy style, but feels forcibly shoehorned into the film and fits more naturally as the credits song.
Part of what makes the film so convincing is the quality of the voice talent. Elba’s portrayal of the sinister Shere Khan drips with malice and self-righteous rage in a more threatening version of the character. Ben Kingsley’s calm demeanor gives Bagheera a wise, grandfatherly aura, like the panther Gandalf of the jungle. Walken imbibes the previously selfish yet harmless character of King Louie with a quirky menace and avarice.
As far as reboots go, Disney delivered the gold standard with “The Jungle Book.” It is an awe-inspiring film that places man at nature’s mercy and as its master. Its visuals effects and thrilling storyline make for a refreshing take on Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale.
– Matthew Fernandez