Are you a die-hard Disney fan, looking for some great family entertainment? Are you a serious cine-phile, eager to have your mind blown by a filmic feat of digital animation?
Are you a thrill seeker? Would you like to see two enormous jungle cats battle for the heart of the jungle, with you so close to the action that your heart leaps in fear of catching a set of fangs to the face?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above, drop whatever you are doing right now and go see Jon Favreau’s epic retelling of The Jungle Book.
If you answered “no” to any of the above questions, go out and see it anyway. In the words of Trevor Noah, who tweeted this after seeing the film, “You have eyes and yet you waste them by not seeing The Jungle Book.”
With impeccable casting, masterful direction, and the most incredible computer-generated world in cinematic memory (eat your heart out, James Cameron), Favreau weaves an incredible reimagining of The Jungle Book that combines Rudyard Kipling’s poetry, Disney’s playfulness, and a dense cautionary tale about the loss of our own wildness, and the dangers of man’s “Red Flower.”
The film opens with a wonderful and welcome sight: newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli running from a superbly animated and appropriately enormous Bagheera. In a world where Emma Stone can play a Chinese/Hawaiian girl, and Scarlett Johansson is cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi to the horror of longtime fans of Ghost in the Shell, it is refreshing to see an Indian kid play…well, an Indian kid.
Neel Sethi is superb as Mowgli. Adorable, clever, and exactly bratty enough to live up to Disney’s originally animated Mowgli, Sethi also provides Mowgli with the intensity intended in Kipling’s book. Lost somewhere between man and beast, Mowgli refuses to accept that he is not of the jungle, and yet constantly resorts to decidedly human “tricks” to navigate life in the Seeonee.
Sethi’s Mowgli is joined by Ben Kingsley as the authoritative Bagheera, Bill Murray as trickster and ne’er-do-well Balloo, and Scarlett Johansson as the seductive and deadly Ka. Idris Elba brilliantly terrifies as Shere Khan, while the casting of Christopher Walken as King Louie the orangutan seems at once improbable and inspired.
While the film itself would be a visual treat with any other cast, these particular voice actors have transformed The Jungle Book. Despite the original animated version having been a staple of American childhood for decades, in the future, when young and old alike remember The Jungle Book, they will hear Christopher Walken singing King Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You.”
Similarly vanished are the visions of 1967’s technicolor jungle. Favreau has set the new standard for computer generated imagery, bringing us fully into a jungle so full of wildness and wonderment that it recalls the visceral immediacy of Apocalypse Now as well as the fantastical childish innocence of The Never-Ending Story. The Jungle Book succeeds in surrounding the audience in the scale of the immense jungle, while besting every digitally-animated film in cinematic history with its delicate and perfectly executed details. From flying foxes and pangolins that induce veritable overdoses of cute, to the texture of mother Raksha’s thick fur, every conceivable hair, every leaf, every rain drop, is animated with warm and lively precision. The gleam of each eye, whether the eye of a fretful porcupine or the mesmerizing orbs of the deceptive Ka is equally, beautifully articulated. Such superb animation creates a totally immersive experience, allowing the viewer to melt into the magic of Favreau’s storytelling.
The true brilliance of Favreau’s animated opus lies in the opposition of Shere Khan to the man-cub, Mowgli, and in Mowgli’s eventual use of Shere Khan’s greatest fear: The Red Flower. While “man’s Red Flower” is passively mentioned in the 1967 rendition, in this new retelling, the Red Flower, the fire which man controls and wields, effectively separating himself from the animal kingdom, is nearly its own character. In utilizing the Red Flower, Favreau turns his Jungle Book into a powerful allegorical tale, in which Mowgli and Shere Khan play out the eternal battle of destructive man versus murderous wilderness.
Just as Shere Khan prophesies, Mowgli one day returns to the jungle, bringing destruction upon the fertile and savage Eden with his Red Flower, realizing his destructive nature as a child of man. However, rather than embracing this fire, and using his human advantage over vicious Shere Khan, Mowgli is distraught over the destruction of his beautiful jungle, his only home. Mowgli rejects the Red Flower, and defeats Shere Khan not as a man, but as a child of the Seeonee. The flames abated (by a herd of firefighting elephants, no less), Mowgli returns to life in the jungle, accepting that though he is born of humans, he is as much a part of the jungle as the jungle is a part of him.
In a time when our destructiveness, and our separation from nature is being painfully and frighteningly realized by the consequences of global warming and the wholesale destruction of oceans and jungles, Favreau’s Jungle Book is both a mortifying cautionary tale, and a hopeful vision of what could be. Though we have brought man’s Red Flower upon the world, in embracing our wildness, in recognizing we are part of the vibrant and unyielding nature we inhabit, perhaps we can live, as Mowgli does, in harmony with the wild womb of awe and wonder that is our natural world.
Written by Amani Hamed