I barely recall seeing the animated 1967 version of "The Jungle Book" when it came out. I was around four years old and Poppy, my name for my great uncle, took me to the theater where I promptly fell asleep on his lap. Ya know, when you're four, that happens...but I certainly know the characters and songs from the show. It is part of the general popular culture. So when an actual live version of "The Jungle Book"--well, live with computer graphics--was announced, it seemed to be a good idea. And as it turns out, it is a splendid idea.
Computer graphics or CG have come light years in a short period of time. CG characters in the past tended to feel oddly floaty--their movements were annoyingly delayed, human faces tended to look alternately doughy or stiff, and the physics of how an actual person or body moves was slightly off (and it can still be that way...before "Jungle Book," I saw a trailer for Spielberg's newest film "The BFG" and while it might be a cute film, the giant looks all wrong). But the computer graphics of all the main animals in "The Jungle Book" are literally breathtaking. There are a few background animals that have that floaty sense to them, but all the leads are simply gorgeous: rendered completely realistically with each hair, each eye, each paw, each hindquarter looking real. I was quite unexpectedly moved at seeing animals who look so realistic speak English and behave in such human ways. I adore anything with fur and seeing Mowgli with his wolf mother, father, and brothers was, for me, very poignant and touching, taking me out of the story somewhat, making me think of the reality of animals and the reality of their world... I think the creators of this version of "The Jungle Book" probably had this poignancy in mind while filming. But I can't imagine they meant to take me out of the story the way I was...which I fully acknowledge has everything to do with me and not the film.
And it is this near-perfect realism and ravishing production design (the different locations from open veldt to lush jungle are all beautifully dream-like) that made me notice some schisms. First, I think it is an odd choice to include two of the musical numbers from the 1967 animated version, "Bare Necessities" sung by Baloo the Bear (voiced with lovely and amusing restraint by Bill Murray) and "I Wan'na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)" sung by King Louis (voiced by Christopher Walken). It's one thing to hear these songs in the 1967 animated musical context, and to see them sung by cartoon characters but they have absolutely nothing to do with the realism the current film strives so hard to create. The 1967 version was a musical, so I have no quibble with that but this version is not a musical and to see and hear these magnificently rendered creatures break into a Dixieland Jazz song is beyond incongruous. Especially when there is no Dixieland Jazz anywhere else. (Since we are being asked to believe in the veracity of the setting, it begs the question, "How did Dixieland Jazz get to the deepest, darkest jungles of India about 40 years before its invention to begin with?")
The second thing I noticed goes a little deeper and probably beyond the control of the filmmakers, and that is that, with a close-up portrayal of these completely realistic animals and their individual societies, cultures, packs, and relationships, the difference between animal and man was at once large and small. It's always been assumed that Kipling's "Jungle Book" stories were and are thinly veiled social and political critiques. But more immediately, they function as allegories and fables. And in any allegory or fable, an animal almost always has human characteristics. In this way, an author, whether Aesop or Kipling, can make wry, pointed, pithy comments about human nature without addressing any real human beings. It is easier to accept our foibles and flaws when they are pointed out in an indirect way. But again, because of the precision and exactitude with which the animals are presented in this most recent "Jungle Book," I saw the human-like characteristics of the animals as incompatible with how the writers of this version wanted things to be: animals are wary of man, told to stay away from man villages, and that man is destructive, and hunts for sport. Yet Shere Khan the tiger (voiced here by Idris Elba) is a jealous, vindictive murderer. And Louis is a sadistic ego-driven rage-aholic. Some might accuse me of overthinking it, but I was really struck by the disparity of the nature-documentary quality of the animals and the human ego quality of their behavior. Aside from some primates who have been seen committing murder, and perhaps Orcas who we know do kill for the fun of it, the animal kingdom is gracefully ego-free. "It's a dog-eat-dog world" we say. "It's a jungle out there" we say. But generally, the only time real animals kill is for food, or to protect themselves or their young from becoming food. On a deep level, it was disappointing for my psyche to feel that these lovely animals were behaving just like the worst aspects of human beings--I mourned that fact. And I know that if the CG rendering team had not made them so spectacularly life-like, I would not have had that feeling.
But I do not want to leave you feeling that I disliked the film overall. Certainly not. It's a visual splendor and the pace is perfect for an adventure story. Also of note is the wonderfully fine performance of newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli. To think that this eleven year old boy spent many weeks acting all by himself on a green screen set (probably along with some motion capture actors) and came up with such a charming, sensitive, varied performance is extremely impressive.