The Jungle Book: the law of the jungle prevails

Neel Sethi as Mowgli in The Jungle Book.  

For any spectacled movie-goer, wearing those enormous IMAX 3D glasses is a battle in itself. However, the bigger problem is if you end up getting your eyes moist. And I did tear up a couple times while watching The Jungle Book. The viewing may have been bumpy, thanks to my handicap with 3D glasses, but the heart was content. Maybe it’s the wildlife enthusiast in me, just thrilled to be transported to a once-existing forest land that has now become a fantasy.

Maybe it’s the magic of computer generated imagery (CGI) that invokes more emotions in us than human actors. Maybe it is actors such as Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley who breathe life into those characters and makes us feel for them. Or perhaps it is the mad rush of nostalgia that director Jon Favreau serves so well in his film that retains the spirit of both Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 book as well as the 1967 animated version – the colourful, old fashioned ending credits pay homage to it.

The book itself had come out of Kipling’s nostalgic yearning for a land he deeply missed. Inspired by the time he spent in India he wrote it for his daughter who passed away at a young age. Using CGI and motion-capture technology, Favreau, much like Avatar and Life of Pi, creates an immersive experience that is both realistic in texture and fantastical in feel. To see the jungle come alive in the first 20 minutes of the film is the most sensuous experience I’ve had in the movies of late. You can feel the dust of the scorching summer, taste the mud as the herd of wild buffaloes charge through the mud-pond and smell the dampness of the forest after the arrival of monsoons.

Favreua’s film broadly follows the graph of the original stories – deviating slightly in the later stages. We are thrown into the middle of the action – literally – as we see Mowgli (Neel Sethi), with his mop of thick, black, neck length hair and a loincloth, gliding from tree to tree as the frenzied camera follows him. Brought up in a pack of wolves since he was an infant, the man-cub has grown into a boy who has by now got a hang of the world. Or the jungle. And even the jungle has its rules, we learn. When all the species come together at the river during the dry summer to drink water, no one preys on the other. Not even Shere Khan, the most feared beast in the forest and the main antagonist of The Jungle Book. But unlike others, the Royal Bengal Tiger doesn’t see Mowgli as one of them. He wants to kill him. The rest of the story is how Mowgli survives the wrath of Shere Khan and manages to stay in the forest with the help of a few friends such as Bagheera (Kingsley), the black panther, Balu (Murray), the bear, the mother wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyongo) and the leader of the pack Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). The technical marvel aside, it’s these characters that are the soul of the film. You believe in them, empathise with them and fear for their lives. And half the battle is won in the voice casting.

Scarlett Johansson in a brief role makes for a hypnotic, mythical Kaa who seduces Mowgli into danger— I don’t blame him – with an emphasis on ‘S’ every time she speaks. Nyongo brings warmth and fierceness of a surrogate mother protecting her cub. Elba breathes fire as Khan, who is blinded, literally in one eye, by his hatred for human beings. He maybe the evil force in the film, but he lends a certain dignity to it. Just like Khan’s partial blindness, The Jungle Book makes another alteration in the form of King Louie. An orang-utan in the original, here he is a Gigantopithecus, a giant ape three-times larger that lives in the dark chambers of an abandoned temple on the top of a cliff. A smooth-talking manipulator who offers Mowgli protection from Khan in exchange for the ‘Red Flower’, Christopher Walken is perfect.

The bright-eyed debutant, Neel Sethi with his mix of innocence and vulnerability feels just right as the boy who is friends with animals and has made the jungle his home. But it’s Murray and Kingsley who steal the show. Murray, instead of his signature deadpan touches, brings a cheery humour to the laidback, easy going Baloo who loves his honey. The scenes between him and Mowgli are some of the film’s most delightful ones as they float on the river and Mowgli learns a thing or two about “the song about the good life”. Kingsley is just fantastic as Bagheera. A fatherly figure to Mowgli, his concerns for his safety reflects the cynicism of a war veteran. But it’s his tactical planning and wisdom that helps Mowgli when it matters.

Favreau, who had made the Ironman 1 and 2 movies, brings a certain believability in this live action rendering of the story that has been either in our heads or in the form of the animated version – barring the forgettable versions made in between. The characters are not ‘Disney cute’ and their interactions are based on the universal theme of survival.

The film is not without its flaws. The reimagining is only visually; perhaps we can look forward to the Jungle Book: Origins that comes out next year for that. But thematically it doesn’t give it a new direction. The energy somewhat dips in the last hour, perhaps owing to the sameness of events, and picks up again in the visually spectacular climax. But the movie left me with a feeling that I didn’t want to destroy by nitpicking.

What makes The Jungle Book enduring in our collective consciousness is that it is an outlet to our eternal fantasy to live in the wild. The film, painted in mystical shades, succeeds in invoking this deep, primal core present in all of us.

The Jungle Book

Story: An orphan boy is raised in the jungle with the help of a pack of wolves, a bear, and a black panther.

Director: Jon Favreau

Cast: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyongo, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito

Genre: Fantasy adventure

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 11:44:52 AM |

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