Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

April 28, 2016

The Jungle Book: Interspecies Empathy

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It would be remiss of me to not acknowledge my initial cynicism upon being told that The Jungle Book was being remade yet again. Not only by Disney, but also by Warner Brothers now that the copyright protections which safeguarded Rudyard Kipling’s novel have lapsed. While Warner Brothers has postponed the release of its own film until 2018, Disney’s latest effort has landed in theaters with notable aplomb. I openly admit that my original cynicism was unfounded: Jon Favreau’s direction has imbued what could have been an otherwise cold exhibition of studio machinery with an invigorating earnestness.

Here we have a film that passionately encourages us to embrace our core essence while simultaneously recognizing it as an accidental feature that doesn’t reflect our true character. The tiger Shere Khan’s (voiced by Idris Elba) assertion that Mowgli, as a human, will soon wreak havoc on their jungle is obviously unfounded by the film’s conclusion, thereby reinforcing a post-tribal identity in which the specie to which you belong proves ultimately inconsequential. As a children’s movie, the pedagogy presented by Favreau is present in, but not necessarily at the forefront of, either original source material he draws upon (both Kipling’s 1894 novel and the 1967 Disney film). This 2016 adaption therefore deserves praise for communicating a noble idea that has contemporary, real-world implications: reinforcing the triviality of aspects of our identity that don’t define the essence of our character — whether it be race, gender, nationality, et cetera.

In addition to its thematic merit, the film also deserves praise for its laudable ability to balance the need for a frightening sense of realism with the more enjoyable fantastical elements of the original Disney film. Favreau’s greatest feat is the delicate symbiosis he evinces by allowing instantly-recognizable, light-hearted melodies like “Bear Necessities” to co-exist alongside incredibly realistic animations of the film’s antagonists that would be scary to a young child. The critic Scott Tobias, former editor-in-chief of The Dissolve, rightly signaled this out as a significant element of praise, arguing that The Jungle Book is precisely the sort of movie that children of all ages ought to see because it presents an opportunity for them to vicariously overcome the same fears faced by Mowgli. Indeed, film’s laudable capacity to build up daunting antagonists and counterbalance them with its more light-hearted elements ultimately endows this adaption of The Jungle Book with a nuanced tone uncommon in movies marketed primarily toward children. (Spirited Away is an apt comparison as a children’s film whose quiet melancholy results in an intensely retrospective tone.)

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Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

However, as praiseworthy as these elements are, there are still a few notable flaws exhibited by the film. Featuring acceptable vocal performances by its cast, I feel some reservation to extend praise to the film’s only live actor. As a child actor and the sole performer amidst what I imagine were a sea of green screens, Neel Sethi no doubt deserves some praise for sufficiently carrying the story. (After all, Ian McKellen reportedly broke down on the set of The Hobbit, momentarily losing his temper at Peter Jackson for confining him to work in an empty green room instead of with other actors. So I doubt such acting is either easy or satisfying.) However, we have seen other directors elicit incredible performances from child actors, so while our Mowgli may be acceptable here, by no means is he great.

Additionally, the film was edited in such a fashion that its pacing feels a bit haphazard at times. Some elements were quite rushed, evident in how the friendship between Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray) and Mowgli also could have used more time, since I still felt as if Baloo had just met Mowgli by the time he started to refer to him as his best friend. The introduction to Mowgli’s life as a member of the wolf pack also could have been elongated to better reveal the intensity of the former’s connection to his adopted family, and to better elaborate on any resonant character deficiencies that would have captured our attention. In a strict narratological sense, the main problem Mowgli has to surmount is his identity crisis as a human amongst animals. What largely confiscates the film from having the most satisfying ending possible is that Mowgli himself had a pretty good attitude from the beginning; it was rather the other animals whose attitudes that needed to change for them to be able to welcome Mowgli as one of their own. This weakens the character development of Mowgli, instead relying on the prospect of defeating Shere Khan as the main trope for us to invest our emotional energies.

However, at the end of the day, The Jungle Book is still an entertaining vessel carrying important ideas of inclusiveness for younger audiences, thereby charging the original source materials with a contemporary relevance. Other than those flaws noticeable in both script and its performances, it is a fine effort by Disney whose thematic and stylistic didacticism continues to challenge cynical claims that remakes have nothing to offer.

Lorenzo Benitez is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at llb224@cornell.edu. 

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