I recently reviewed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), one of the greatest of all animated films, and observed that to witness an animated film is to be carried away to a realm that frees itself from the gravitational realism of our world. Birds can sing. Trees can come alive. Beautiful princesses can be brought back to life by true love’s first kiss. Some of these thoughts ran through my head as I sat down for The Jungle Book, a live-action version of a wonderful animated film, and I lamented slightly the absence of cartoon.
I didn’t lament the visual cues of cartoon; I lamented its boundless imagination. This live-action adaptation is so rooted in the soil of reality that it lets go of its power to dream. It looks crisp. It is directed with a gentle touch of confidence by Jon Favreau, whose Iron Man (2008) remains a superlative example of superhero moviemaking. And it features a bravado performance from Neel Sethi, the young newcomer who, like so many actors today, is faced with the impossible task of playing against invisible companions. But it lacks the magic of the original. Rather, this version is grim and overbearing, like a dark cloud over all that is bright and cheerful.
To be sure, the original Jungle Book (1967) had its dark moments, and its climax too was bathed in the horrid glow of a forest fire, but one of the qualities of animation is its ability to soften moods that would otherwise be too intense for younger viewers. By transplanting such action scenes into a (presumably) real world, the dangers are transplanted too, and they’re released at full strength.
Consider the snake Kaa, and the tiger Shere Khan. Both characters appeared in the animated film and carry into this one similar motives and menace, but observe how much more terrifying Kaa is here. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Kaa appears as a giant python up in the trees, with piercing yellow eyes and a physical dominance that would cause the little kids in the crowd to recoil. The snake doesn’t so much illicit fear as embody it. Who is Kaa’s target audience? Likewise, Shere Khan (Idris Elba) resembles a real tiger whose face is badly scarred and whose eyes carry a sickly vengeance. I admired the quality of the CGI that made him, but, like Kaa, I reckon the kids will regard him with fright.
It could be argued, of course, that these characters were also meant to chill audiences in 1967, but the point I’m trying to make is that this new Jungle Book, by materialising all its wonders and perils, seems to have misplaced its target group. Who will go to see this? Not the children, I suspect. They’d much rather see the cartoon. This leads to the broader, more prudent question: Why reimagine The Jungle Book at all?
I sound like I didn’t enjoy this movie very much. Quite the contrary, actually. I enjoyed the many delights of its photography, its craft, and its carefree amalgamation of several distinct habitats into one supersized fantasy world (where wolves, orang-utans, bears, African elephants and black panthers seemingly coexist). And I think it’s mighty entertaining for grown ups. I’m just a little concerned for the young ones, who will be expecting Baloo (Bill Murray) and Mowgli to face the world with a tireless exuberance and back away when Shere Kahn takes over the movie with his terrifying scowl. Or I could be completely wrong. Kids these days are tougher than two-dollar steaks.