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Putting Kipling Back in “The Jungle Book”

Disney Pictures

David Ives - published on 04/15/16 - updated on 06/08/17

This Disney remake entertains while giving food for thought

Is there any way to watch Disney’s 1967 version of The Jungle Book and not come away humming The Bare Necessities? I’d venture it takes a supreme effort of the will to avoid doing so. That’s why, when the first trailers for Disney’s latest live-action (sort of) remake of The Jungle Book first appeared and there was no singing to be heard, some folks (okay, it was me) were a bit skeptical. Well, not to worry. While not every tune from the 1967 production makes the transition to the new film, the ones we really want to hear do. And although Bill Murray and Christopher Walken aren’t going to make anyone forget Phil Harris or Louis Prima anytime soon, they do the job well enough that everyone should still be humming The Bare Necessities as they exit the theater.

That’s good news, because Disney’s modern updates to their classic animated movies have always been a hit or miss kind of thing. Their first reworking of The Jungle Book in the 1990s contained none of the appeal of the animated movie and has been mostly forgotten, while their remake of 101 Dalmatians is fondly remembered for Glenn Close’s over-the-top portrayal of Cruella de Vil. Recently they’ve run the gamut from the woefully abysmal Maleficent to the surprisingly charming (see what I did there) Cinderella. Fortunately, this new retelling of The Jungle Book contains more hits than misses.

The story covers much of the same ground as the 1967 film. Raised in the jungle since he was a toddler, the man-cub Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) is forced to leave his adoptive wolf pack after the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) makes known his intentions to kill the boy. Escorted by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), Mowgli reluctantly makes his way toward the nearest man-village where he will presumably be safe from the tiger’s wrath. Along the way he befriends the happy-go-lucky bear Baloo (Bill Murray), stumbles into the coils of the hypnotic constrictor Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), and runs afoul of the covetous orangutan King Louie (Christopher Walken).

The movie is not a complete rehash, however. King Louie, for instance, is not played for laughs this time around. Depicted as being roughly the same size as Son of Kong and voiced by Walken with all the inflections of a Sicilian mob boss, Louis could prove downright frightening for younger viewers. The elephants also are no longer there for comic relief but are treated reverentially as they move in and out of the fog like creatures of myth.

The biggest change, however, is the preeminence given Kipling’s poem The Law of the Jungle. Often interpreted as being a meditation on the interrelated rights and responsibilities that bind together the individual and society, bits and pieces of The Law of the Jungle Law are sprinkled liberally throughout the film. It plays a particular importance during the climax of the film which, without spoiling anything, brought to mind a line from the Catechism, which reads, “The human person needs to live in society. … Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.” By the end of the film, Mowgli learns how to develop his individual talents as a human not just for his own satisfaction but for the good of all. It’s a layer of complexity not found in the 1967 version.

None of which is to say that The Jungle Book spends all (or even a significant portion) of its time moralizing. The vast majority of the film is devoted to spectacle, with Mowgli running, leaping, and climbing his way through the digital trees and temples created by director Jon Favreau and his crew. In fact, calling this movie a live-action remake is something of a misnomer as young Neel Sethi is the only living presence on screen for roughly 99 percent of the running time. Everything else, from the smallest drop of water to the largest orangutan you could possibly imagine, is CGI. But it’s really, really good CGI, and its used to tell a story that, while pretty thin, is never anything but entertaining. This new Jungle Book certainly won’t replace the old one in your heart, but it earns a spot next to it.

In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by … watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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