Out of all the animated movies Disney has chosen to remake, updating The Jungle Book from 1964 was probably the smartest bet. The original film is barely a movie and more a loose collection of vignettes that involve the same characters. Most of the songs are completely forgettable, and there’s no real narrative drive propelling the thing from one scene to the next. Well, Jon Favreau did his best to address that issue from the original, but the film ends with such a confused series of actions that all seem to contradict each other that the goodwill established from making an actual movie out of the loose adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s stories can’t quite overcome the final failings.
Mowgli is a man-cub living with wolves in the jungles of India. In a particularly dry season, all the animals come together at a neutral watering hole where the rest of the denizens of the jungle see him for the first time, including Shere Khan, a Bengal tiger. Scarred by a man years before, Khan holds a grudge against all mankind and threatens the wolves because of Mowgli’s presence. Bagheera, the panther who originally found Mowgli, leads Mowgli out of the jungle and towards the man-village where he really belongs.
I do wish there was a bit more establishing Mowgli’s life before this change comes over the wolf pack, but the motive is clear. Mowgli needs to leave to save both the wolves and himself. Mowgli, though, never really seems to buy into it. Whenever he’s with Bagheera, he talks about how he doesn’t want to go to the man-village, expressing a desire to live with the crocodiles instead. He doesn’t know men, but he does know the jungle. He doesn’t belong with men, he belongs in the jungle. Later, after Mowgli has been separated from Bagheera, he talks about how he needs to go on to the man-village but he obviously doesn’t want to go. Meeting Baloo, the bear with a simply philosophy of coasting through life, Mowgli easily falls in with him. Up to this point, the movie’s been pretty well constructed, but it’s the introduction of King Louie that feels a bit out of place.
We have our antagonist in Shere Khan, and he’s been the only antagonist through almost two-thirds of the movie, and then we get an army of monkeys and their king, Louie, a gigantopithecus. He’s wonderfully realized visually and I love how Christopher Walken plays him, but Louie comes out of nowhere late in the film to provide a visually imposing but quickly dispatched antagonist. He provides one piece of critical information to Mowgli that turns the film’s narrative direction (that Shere Khan had killed the wolf pack’s leader), but Louie feels like he’s in the movie because he was in the original where he had one of the only two good songs instead of being a natural fit for the story.
Mowgli, filled with rage, cut off from Bagheera and Baloo, and looking to get Shere Khan, embraces his nature as man and takes a torch of fire from the nearby man-village which he runs with through the jungle to the wolf den where Shere Khan lords. Lighting the jungle accidentally as he runs, Mowgli arrives for his showdown, and this is where the thematic thrust of the movie loses me.
Up to this point, the idea has been the Mowgli is a man who doesn’t have a natural place in the jungle. He’s not a wolf (or a turtle, crocodile, or bear), and he should embrace who he actually is, a man. So, Mowgli grabbing the fire is him instinctively embracing that manhood, but then, facing Shere Khan, he throws the fire away, rejecting his manhood. It’s not the choice I would have given Mowgli, but it makes sense up to this point. He’s choosing the jungle over humanity. Seconds later, Bagheera pulls him aside (well, pins him) and tells him that he can’t fight Shere Khan like a wolf would, he needs to fight Khan like a man would. Mowgli gets a big smile across his face. A moment before, he had thrown aside the main sign of humanity in the film (fire, the red flower), and then he’s smiling at the idea of taking up other forms of humanity (using tools)? It’s…inconsistent. It also indicates to me that he’s embracing humanity.
After a fight that leads to Shere Khan’s death, I would expect Mowgli to say a sad goodbye to his friends in the jungle. He doesn’t belong there. He used fire to burn large portions of the jungle. He used tools to kill a tiger. He obviously belongs in the man-village, but instead we get a vision of some kind of multiculturalism where Mowgli is caught somewhere between man and jungle. It feels very wrong for what came before like the writer (Justin Marks) and director (Favreau) wanted their cake and to eat it too.
That frustration makes me sad because for the first half of the film I was quite on board with what was going on. The movie had real structure. It looks great (and may be the best looking of these live action remakes from Disney). The cast is top-notch (with special notes for Idris Elba as Shere Khan and Ben Kingsley as Bagheera). And yet, the structure falls apart in its final act to fit in King Louie and the thematic material gets confused.
Netflix Rating: 3/5
Quality Rating: 2/4