“And all the old romance, retold
Exactly in the ancient way,
Can please, as me they pleased of old,
The wiser youngsters of today”
-Robert Louis Stevenson
Disney’s first adaptation of “The Jungle Book,” the 1967 animated film, was not entirely beloved. Instead, the songs were beloved while the work as a whole was forgettable, at best.
Director Jon Favreau does not update the tale of Mowgli for modern audiences. Instead, he allows the folklore to linger and push the plot forward – as it was meant to do.
Like “Peter Pan” or “Winnie the Pooh,” “The Jungle Book” is part of the canon for English-speaking children. Mowgli always represented the wild child within. To children, his life was ideal. One day he would be running with wolves, and the next day he would be fighting off monkeys with bears and panthers, while also hanging out with elephants. What’s not to like?
As far as the film’s special effects are concerned, they are not realistic. But that is because they are not meant to be. “The Jungle Book” is not supposed to be an achievement in computer effects. Instead, the jungle and its animals are presented through the point of view of a small boy.
That’s not to say that the film does not pay homage to the cinemasphere. The temple where King Louie – masterfully voiced by Christopher Walken – and his tribe of primates dwell is similar to Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.” Even Louie, always draped in shadows, has taken the form of Marlon Brando.
Walken is not the only iconic voice in the film. Ben Kingsley is the voice of Mowgli’s mentor, Bagheera, and he brings his unique English stuffiness and harrumph to the character. I suppose that is because Bagheera is a proxy for Rudyard Kipling, the British author of the book on which the film is based..
But to cast Scarlett Johansson as the voice of Kaa was a bold choice of brilliance. In the scene when Mowgli first meets the great python in her canopy home, the images are of a biblical nature. Johansson’s seductive voice slithers with the movements of the serpent. If Kaa were a male, perhaps the forbidden sin of desire would have been absent. But Kaa’s femininity gave the scene an eeriness that will make it unforgettable for years to come.
Kipling wrote “The Jungle Book” for his daughter Josephine, who died at the age of 6. Originally, the book was a collection of short stories set in British-ruled India. Many of the stories feature a feral child called Mowgli and his interactions with the animals of the jungle.
A child cannot survive in the jungle forever, which is the great metaphor for growing up. Bagheera tells Mowgli that he can only be safe from Shere Khan, a tiger who forbids humans from entering the jungle, by living with man. Like when Wendy in “Peter Pan” is told that she will have to move out of the nursery, it is painful for Mowgli to hear, but it must be done.
“The Jungle Book” is currently playing in theaters nationwide.