The Jungle Book, the best children’s film I’ve seen in several years, is nominally based on Disney’s animated musical, but it borrows much more tonally and thematically from Rudyard Kipling’s great 1894 book than from that cheerful 1960s mediocrity.
The present film shares with Kipling its sense that the jungle, and the world of adults, is a source of constant danger, ugly as well as beautiful, confusing and seemingly random as well as subject to Law and ordered patterns. The temptation to explore and to cut loose from your guides and betters is seductive because freedom as a child is dangerous, because the jungle is a terrifying, fascinating place.
If you’ve watched BBC’s Planet Earth or any of Disney’s own excellent recent Nature documentaries, you’ll have noticed how improved telephoto lenses and other shooting techniques have made nature videos a lot more intimate with wild animals than they used to be. Even so, the hyperrealism of The Jungle Book’s CGI’d animals- the sense that every whisker is just so- is striking. I’ve spent a lot of time watching one particular black leopard and several different tigers at zoos, but the initial fight between Bagheera the panther and Shere Khan the tiger made my son and I gasp simultaneously. The more fantastical images- the giant orangutan and jungle-encircling python- are similarly closely observed, scary because they feel life-like, real even if hardly realistic. One of the worst scenes invented for the 1967 movie- the meeting with the elephants- is turned into one of the best here, pursuing Kipling’s themes of deference and respect even in a scene that does not appear in the book.
The film’s release has occassioned some rather pro forma denunciations of Kipling and the age of imperialism he represents. This to me is foolish not merely because art will be greatly diminished if we have to throw off the artists whose lives and works do not conform to contemporary mores, but because my sense is that most of Kipling’s critics have never read any Kipling. Yeah, sure, the book’s an allegory- an allegory for man and nature, obviously, and for childhood and adulthood, for Law and freedom, for whites and Indians, for colonizer and colonized. Even taking the last two- and least currently palatable- of these oppositions, it takes a willful misreading of the book to perceive the main message as jingoism and the White Man’s Burden. Mowgli must learn the ways of the jungle to survive, he cannot simply impose his will on it. He has power as a man-cub, but this power is matched by vulnerability and the dangers of ignorance. (A message that more recent colonizers of Iraq would have been well to learn.) My sense reading Kipling- Kim as well as The Jungle Book– is that in spite of his nationalistic poetry, his main tendency was towards interest and observation, towards a sense that the world he inhabited had its own rules that travelers should respect and absorb. Our world is more homogenous and unified, in some ways, than Kipling’s, but one of the greatest dangers of current ideology is that it doesn’t want to know, that it will happily substitute “they’re just like us” for any engagement with people as they are.
The current film is not interested in these layers of allegory (and will deny them when thrust upon it) because it is quite content to think through the oppositions that would appeal to a young audience- danger and exploration, friendship and alienation, as well as the threat of environmental destruction that is something of a unifying myth across many contemporary children’s movies. In the climatic scene, Mowgli sets a forest fire that only is barely contained, and one can’t (at least as an adult) help but feel that Shere Khan was partially right about the dangers of man-cubs. When Shere Khan recounts in slippery tones the dangers of the Cuckoo bird, who infiltrates other bird’s nests and kills its siblings, my son turned to me and said “but that’s not true?” But of course it is.
The very end of the film is a change from earlier versions, a bow to children’s desires that friends shall not be torn asunder and film producers’ desire that adulthood be forestalled at least until we figure out if a sequel is in the works. I was disappointed, but this was still a remarkable film.