The Jungle Book (2016 movie)

Posted by RDN under On movies on 24 April 2016

This may well be a great movie: I know that I came away from it very willing to see it again soon. It had several jobs to do, and seemed to tick almost all the boxes. It is, perhaps first and foremost, a successful update of and homage to the previous Disney account, which has been loved by generations. Secondly, one supposes its makers wanted it to be a fair account of Rudyard Kipling’s original book, and it is that. Thirdly, it had to be worth making: that is, it had to do something which can be done now which could not be done before, and it does. The fourth ambition was expressed by one of the team who made it: the storytellers should not get in the way of the story. Again, this movie succeeds.

 

The Jungle Book was, like the much more important or at least more worked-out, Kim, the story of a boy who doesn’t know which world he belongs to: the jungle which brought him up or the village which may be his destiny, in the case of Mowgli; the white secular world which is one half of his gene pool or the Hindu and even Muslim which obscurely calls him, for Kim. He also wonders which of the worlds he knows has rules which are worth obeying.

Mowgli simply cannot decide whether he ought to be constrained by the deep but narrow wisdom of the jungle. After all, his main usefulness to his various non-human friends is that he has tricks: he has tools and strategies they can only dream of, and which they rather dread. The ups and downs and ins and outs of that dilemma are thrillingly told in the new movie, which packs shocks and jokes, and light and dark passages, and feelgood and fear by exciting turns.

Apparently, the film breaks new ground in its reliance on digital techniques, and the only “real” thing in it is the boy who plays Mowgli. Unfortunately, he is a little irritating, at least to these old English ears. He has modern attitudes and locutions. Worse, in a way, he speaks American. You may say that in a movie in which the animals speak American, it hardly stretches the imagination that a human child should. Well, there you go. It seems obvious to me that Mowgli was a son of Empire, and I don’t care whether he sounds like Prince Charles or someone out of Slumdog Millionaire, those are sorts of voices I would more readily accept for the part.

As to the animals in the film, I was not convinced by all of them. Oddly, I was most troubled by the panther (or black leopard, as Jonathan Scott taught us to call it in one of his movies). I didn’t think he slunk quite as he should and I wasn’t sure about the shape of his head. It’s curious: had this been a cartoon, then the animals could have been caricatures. Had it been a YouTube video of a talking Alsatian or herds of cats, or a stop-go animation with models or drawings, one might have cut it all sorts of slack. But this movie seems to promise an immaculate conceptualisation of real animals, and I kept wondering if they would pass muster with David Attenborough or Jonathan Scott.

But then one remembered how this film’s encounter between Mowgli and the bear was at least as frightening as that between the hero of The Revenant and his. Come to that, the new Jungle Book’s jungle had all the darkness of the Arctic forest in the adult stunner. And it had the ability to suddenly become flower-strewn and paradisiacal, and to take you there too.

Just as with The Revenant, one wanted to compile a Top Five of moments. Mine would be (the spoiler is very slightly disguised here): the snake’s eye, the tidal monkeys, the bear raft, the honey trick, and pulling the temple down.

The team behind The Jungle Book said they wanted the storytellers and their techniques not to get in the way of the story. For all its triumphs, and granting entirely the way it let landscape and weather tell much of its story, one might allow that The Revenant was a triumph of a particular directorial aesthetic, and wonder if it didn’t get in the way a bit. (I found the unrelieved gloom of scene and temperament a bit hard to take.) The Jungle Book (2016) took some very conscious technical and aesthetic decisions (the all-bar-one digital approach, mainly). But after that, one did feel that it put everything at the service of high-grade entertainment.

The new film’s techniques draw one in. The changes of pace and tone are beautifully done. It is, surely, story-telling to match Kipling’s.

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