Saturday, April 23, 2016

In Which I Review The Jungle Book (2016 Disney Movie)

Well, Disney you did it again. And by "it" I mean you took a beloved classic, let some real humans take the well worn characters for a test drive, and profited an almost obscene amount of money by playing on people's nostalgia and fond remembrances of days gone by. It's what you're good at, poking the childhood feels with clever songs and beloved narratives and I tip my hat to you for being able to put forth a "new" product every year that isn't, strictly speaking, new, innovative, fresh, forward thinking, or any typically positive adjective movie makers aim for when casting their lens or pens at a new project. That sounded like a heavy criticism, but it wasn't, truth be told. These are the films I grew up with; these movies and stories are my childhood and I, sucker that I am, join the masses in indulging in some fond recollections. Like my Cinderella movie review from a little over a year ago (was it year? gosh, time doth fly) there's very little need to set up this review. The plot is so well known that it barely (pun?) needs remarked upon at all. But unlike the Cinderella rave review, this one gets only a tentative "good" from me. There's something lacking in this new Disney live action adaptation, as if the film couldn't push itself to try and say something new. It certainly wasn't bad, but I did not leave the theater believing in the power of fairy tales again. And maybe--just maybe--it's because the Jungle Book isn't a fairy tale (though many of the tropes are well embedded). There's something darker and more feral at the heart of the jungle and the movie really missed the chance to explore the heart of darkness in man and beast alike. The jungle isn't for kids (despite the sugary sweet ending this film gives) and by not delving into the savagery of both man and beast I am left with something wanting. Hopefully I can unpack that a bit below, eh? Grab a cowbell (because of course) and let's go! 


General Thoughts

There came a point during my viewing of this film when I wondered if I'm not just a wee bit too cynical at times. Don't worry, readers. You don't actually have to answer me; I know I am. I've been trying to think back to my childhood experiences of The Jungle Book, the original Disney animated movie. Did I enjoy it then? I think I did, but certainly not the extent of, say, The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast. I liked the songs; I liked Baloo; and I know I loved Kaa (this, by the way, will come up again below so stay tuned). But for me, as a child, The Jungle Book felt too foreign. Talking animals were common in Disney films so I had no problem with that, but the lack of a real world made it too escapist. I've never been in a jungle nor witnessed any of its horrors (and the Disney film mostly makes the horrors of the jungle into jokes--it is, after all, a cartoon) and the cartoon landscapes felt too otherworldly to ever feel deadly. In the new live action film, the otherworldly feeling goes right out the window and becomes very real. But as I stated above, the realness feels flat, or at least unexplored, lacking in the depth of horror we know the jungle can offer. A jungle, in literature, can often represent as terrifying an ordeal as a haunted castle or a wild moor. More so, even, because the jungle in the actual Jungle Book is one of those wildly untapped ones; the kind that people go in to and never come out of (sort of like Mowgli). There are giant apes and ruinous temples and raging rivers and apparently elephants who are also expert landscapers. The jungle itself is supposed to feel like a living creature in this film, one that can be wild and deadly but also one that can nurture and endure. The film does a passingly good job at the latter, but it's the former where it falls down for me. We spend the last bit of the beginning of the movie moving from landscape to landscape with Mowgli and Bagheera--and yes the jungle is so vast and uncharted that it contains everything from rocky terrain, to dense forest, to yellowed Savannah, to something that looks akin to your local midwest state park. The jungle in this movie is the world, but it never feels truly like a threat (hint: it should!). It's not just Shere Khan who threatens Mowgli; the entire situation should be a threat. If Mowgli wants to chose the jungle (because that's where his multi-creatured pack is) that's fine, but the movie never shows the true horror of the jungle; but you better believe it shows the horrors of the man village. Bathed in fire--not just normal fire, mind you, but a fire that licks the sky and threatens to overtake the men standing around its warmth (tiny beings reduced to mere shadows before its red and yellow glow)--the man village is an unholy nightmare from which Mowgli runs.

And this is what I mean by my own jaded cynicism. It's a Disney film, for crying out loud. I shouldn't be rooting for something akin to Conrad's Heart of Darkness! But lessening the terror of the jungle felt out of place with the realism the movie brought in other terms, like the animation, voice acting of most of the cast, or, yes, the raw human emotions the animals invoke when they deal with the incredibly real problems of Shere Khan's threats, losing a loved one, or friend. This is topped off by what I feel is a very rough ending that makes everything too saccharine and too "happily ever after." Again, it's a Disney film so why am I being so harsh that the storybook closed and all's well that ends well? Well, I think it's actually because the animated Disney film--the one that should by virtue of medium be more Disney-esque than this new live action one--chose a very different path, one this new movie eschewed in a rather eyebrow raising manner. Mowgli doesn't leave the jungle; the closest he gets to the man village is the threshold, where he steals some fire and runs back to his jungle home. The animated film pushes Mowgli toward humanity. Like mythical Enkidu, Mowgli is tamed not by fire but by the lure of his own burgeoning manhood--in other words, he sees a pretty girl. Humanity is placed above the law of the jungle, the wild untamed forests, and even his two best friends Bagheera and Baloo in the animated film. It's definitely a bold statement for this 2016 film to cast humanity so dark and have Mowgli stay in the jungle--after all, humans are doing a pretty nice job of wrecking the planet as is, right (yes, the modern overtones of this movie are fairly heavy at times). But it cannot be that straightforward (jungle good, village bad), not when your plot has side moments like a blood thirsty tiger, a law in which peace between "tribes" of people only comes during great upset (like lack of water), and a 2,000 pound ape who wants to rule his empire with the help of the red flower (fire). All three of those "dangers," except Shere Khan, are given little room to truly become terrors and instead are either quickly resolved (the rainy season comes quickly) or are made into comic and iconic moments of song and dance. And once the imminent threat of Shere Khan is removed, the jungle returns to a paradise. My criticisms sound harsh but only because there is so much more this film could have done to emphasize that the jungle and the village are one and the same--packs of peoples or animals, seeking to dominate and protect their own. King Louie wants to bring the jungle under his control with fire? So do humans. Driving home this point--that there is little separation between the wild and the civilized--would go a long way in demonstrating that Mowgli would be at home in either place and is both beast and man.

What I Liked

--The animation of this film is gorgeous. The standout animation scene is probably Mowgli sitting on Baloo's belly, floating upstream.

--I especially loved the re-imagining of King Louie as a giant ape sitting on a throne of a long forgotten temple. Christopher Walken gives a very nice performance moving from stuttering kindly voice in the dark to oversized temple-destroyer in a matter of moments. Also, a round of applause to whoever thought up Mowgli finding a cowbell seconds before you first hear Louie speak.

--While I didn't like the actual plot ending, the ending-ending of the book closing whilst laying on a blue velvet cloth is so damn iconic I actually sniffled a bit.

--"You have never been in more danger of being extinct than you are right now." Baloo was on point.

--Even if their roles were smaller, most of the voice actors did a fantastic job bringing their talents to animal creatures. I say most because despite loving Idris Elba in everything he does, he was a bit too whisker twirling bad kitty this time around; the cartoon tiger was elegant in his villainy. He also missed the chance to showcase Shere Khan's trauma and (yup) humanity in light of his fears.

What I Disliked 

--Not nearly enough Kaa! The giant snake was masterfully rendered but her role was so small. And she didn't even get to sing "Trust In Me" until the end credits!

--Some clunky dialogue like right after Kaa tells Mowgli the story of the man and his cub who fought Shere Kahn in the distant past, she says, "and that man cub was you!" No kidding. You don't need to make this text. The young kid is wearing red pantaloons. It's clearly Mowgli.

--The actor playing Mowgli was a hit and a miss. One the one hand, he's incredibly young and his costars are tennis balls on sticks so it takes a certain amount of imagination to even make this work, but on the other hand, at no point did I forget that I was watching a kid "play" around. He never became Mowgli, in other words. Also, his annunciation could use some work at times.

--The constant "law of the jungle" refrain got wearisome.

--I'm glad Bear Necessities wasn't cut, but Baloo and Mowgli couldn't even sing it together in time?

Final Grade and Thoughts on The Jungle Book

--Final Grade: B

--Final Thought: This is a mostly acceptable version of a beloved Disney story and it strays little from the wheelhouse. But where it does stray is noticeable and without any real depth of exploration of what the film is really trying to say.

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