Agony and ecstasy—12 months of turmoil, disaster, death, rescue, victory, and celebration
“Oh no, it’s over? I wish it never had to end.” These words spoken by a 6-year-old normally impatient with any cinema that doesn’t involve princesses, fairies, or princess-fairies should give you an idea just how entrancing the new live action Jungle Book is.
While most of Disney’s reinventions of old animated favorites perform well at the box office, the quality has been hit or miss. Last year’s Cinderella was worth spending a hefty wad of cash to see in theaters, perhaps even multiple times. However, unless you were a fan of Tim Burton’s shtick, Alice in Wonderland was one that could wait for Netflix. And Maleficent—that was one you could catch on basic cable some Saturday afternoon while folding laundry.
Though not as thematically uplifting or emotionally satisfying as Cinderella, The Jungle Book is definitely in the “must see in theaters” category. And definitely in 3-D.
There’s no point pretending that the phenomenal visual feast director Jon Favreau (Elf, Iron Man) has created isn’t the film’s primary draw. From the opening scene of young man-cub Mowgli running with the wolf pack, to the misty shrouds of the mossy tree canopy wherein dwells the serpent Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), to the cliff-top monkey temple, every CGI, motion-capture effect looks absolutely convincing. The feeling it creates is something like entering the most lavish theme-park ride ever invented.
A lineup of spot-on voice talent adds substance to all the style. Phil Harris’ 1967 version of Baloo the bear is so iconic, I doubted if even Bill Murray could compete with it. Thankfully, Murray doesn’t try. Instead he offers a fresh spin on the lovable loafer—something of a cross between Winnie the Pooh and Murray’s classic con artist in Stripes—that gives the character greater dimension and adds depth to his bond with young Mowgli. Likewise, Christopher Walken goes in a new, though still adjacent, direction for King Louis that is as delightfully quirky and menacing as we would expect from the actor who made “More cowbell” a catchphrase for the ages.
So it wouldn’t be surprising if such strong recommendations cause most viewers not to care if, from a narrative point of view, this PG-rated Jungle grows a little overrun. Unlike the 1967 original, which was primarily a comical romp, the live-action creatures are much more threatening, and the impression of violence far more palpable. We have a sense that we’re supposed to find some meaning in the darker tone. But the subtext is muddled, lacking the moral clarity of something like Cinderella’s wonderful “Have courage and be kind.”
On the one hand we naturally root against villain Shere Khan (Idris Elba) in his quest to devour Mowgli. Yet, to a certain degree, the tiger’s hatred of the man-cub is proved justified. Mowgli does bring destruction with the “red flower” of fire. His “manlike” tricks of invention and innovation must necessarily change the nature of the jungle if they continue unchecked. Similarly, the strange, mystical (almost worshipful) reverence the other jungle creatures have for the elephants is noted as something that separates animal from man. So what does it mean when Mowgli too bows to the great pachyderms?
I wouldn’t worry about this element overmuch, however, as it feels less like promotion of animism than that Favreau is inserting a little vague, shorthand mysticism with the hopes that the audience will give him credit for something more profound.
One bit of symbolism that does work, however, particularly for Christians, is the Law of the Pack that Mowgli learns from his earliest days as an adopted wolf. Each wolf learns the law and teaches it to their cubs. They recite it when they go out and when they come in. They never let the words of their law depart from their lips, as they know that keeping it brings life. Forgetting it means death.
There aren’t many such clear parallels to biblical principle in Disney movies. So, intentional or not, I was grateful for the opportunity to discuss it with that princess- (and now Jungle-) loving 6-year-old.