The Jungle Book

Director Jon Favreau has remade Disney’s animated musical adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which focused on the initial story of an Indian boy raised by wolves. Previously filmed by Zolton Korda in 1942, that film is far removed from what we today recognize as the story, because it focused solely on the third installment of Kipling’s stories for its foundation. Then there was the direct-to-video Jungle Book 2 from Disney, a 1994 film and its sequel in 1997, and Disney even spun off the character of Baloo the bear on its children’s show Tailspins.

Yet, it’s the 1967 Disney version that firmly defined what we know as The Jungle Book being about talking animals leading a human child through moral situations. Favreau has seen fit to use the Disney color scheme for Mowgli’s loincloth, as well as the ancient ruins for his ape city and the occasional hint of the Academy Award-nominated song, “Bare Necessities” as his film’s connecting conscience to soothe any lingering childhood angst.

And it all works for a perfect telling in this remake, which rivals the Disney classic and in some ways is an improvement in clarifying the story about man’s place in the animal kingdom.

After Shere Khan (a name that translates as “lion king”) kills his father, the infant Mowgli is saved by Bagheera, a panther, who surrenders the boy to a pack of wolves to raise as their own. All is fine until a drought brings Khan to a neutral watering hole where he spots the child and fixates on eliminating the boy-cub before he becomes a man.

Guided by Bagheera and soon befriended by Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray), Mowgli is sent to reside with humans.

Khan’s view of Mowgli addresses innate bigotry, the idea that might makes right and ultimately the concept of unity against a common foe. In the Disney cartoon, the song “Bare Necessities” was the theme of least resistance, but in Favreau’s movie, it becomes, at least for Mowgli, his defense against “claws and sharp teeth” in the guise of man’s brain. Other jungle lifeforms benefit as well from man’s intelligence, like when it’s used to retrieve the honeycombs that Baloo can’t reach, or to save the baby elephant stuck in the mud. The secret advantage and real power stems from his superior intellect!

That point had previously been alluded to, but Favreau moves it clearly to the forefront, turning the Kipling stories into the pursuit of reason as man’s weapon for survival.

The character names in Kipling’s stories were traditional Hindi names given to the different animals, which is no great shakes. That is, until Disney had King Louie, an orangutan, sing “I Wanna Be Like You” and Syracuse professors deemed it racist! “It’s a reference to Louis Armstrong,” they claimed, when the fact is that Louis Prima sang the song, and he was a white Italian!

In The Jungle Book, Favreau makes King Louie the Gigantopithecus, a huge missing link, and instead of “singing,” Louie quotes lyrics requesting the secret of man’s “red flower.”

The scenes in ape city, a crumbling ancient temple, recall Colonel Walter E. Kurtz’s base in Apocalypse Now, with Louie’s voice supplied by Christopher Walken mimicking Brando-esque mumblings. It’s a moment of evolutionary epiphany as Mowgli, having been raised by wolves, relies on his pack instincts and superior human brain to elude being crushed by this missing link desperately desiring to be more man-like, believing the ability to create “fire” will elevate him, as a horrific chase through the ruins ensues.

It’s a beautifully shot anti-climactic moment, because we all realize Mowgli has to face that tiger!

The Jungle Book offers up a mythical worldview that once sounded reasonable, unlike Neverland or Oz, but a jungle of abundance that was slowly disappearing. And unlike the two-dimensional drawings of anthropomorphic animals singing, this live action film, 3D or otherwise, provides expressive facial reactions, underlying the moral guidance of the original stories.

As author Ray Bradbury pointed out, the object of any movie should be to point the viewer back toward the author’s work. Providing both inspiration and encouragement, this vision of Kipling’s Jungle Book reiterates that while man’s dominion is over the land and sea and all that dwell there, it’s as a caretaker, not a scavenger, which is the reason for that highly developed brain!