Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is the latest Disney live-action film, and like its predecessors, the mis-en-scene is used to create a darker atmosphere, which in turn compliment the film’s more serious attempt at a story. To explain what I mean by “serious,” a father had to escort his young daughter out of the theater after she began to cry and beg for them to leave, because she was scared.
That young girl’s fear might have arisen from the fact that The Jungle Book uses a blend of dark colors and tints, and that it also uses an ominous score, thus leading the film at times to resemble a scene of suspense from a horror movie.
In the past couple of years, Disney has been re-making their older library into these grittier live-action films, and there isn’t inherently wrong with that, but in the case of The Jungle Book re-make, there’s an important element that’s lost in the transition process: fun.
For those that don’t know, The Jungle Book is based off a novel by Rudyard Kipling, the infamous author of “The White Man’s Burden,” a disparaging poem on how it is the duty of white civilization to “educate” the “less civilized” nations. Unsurprisingly then, the original Jungle Book novel is racist as it serves as a metaphor for racial segregation.
Disney’s first adaptation of The Jungle Book was a 1967animated musical for children. How did Disney handle Kipling’s racism? They simply ignored it and that led to weirdly anachronistic scenes, such as the “Just Like You” score–a jovial yet racist metaphorical tune.
One of the consequences of Disney making The Jungle Book re-make more serious is that this time around, the racial message is subverted. Penned by Justin Marks, the story is still the same; an abandoned infant known as Mowgli (Neel Sethi)) is adopted by a group of wolves who also raise him. One day, Mowgli is forced to flee from his life as an animal when Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a tiger and resident bully, announces that he’s going to hunt Mowgli down for being a human amongst animals–an act that goes against the old laws of tradition in the jungle.
It’s during Shere Khan’s scenes that the racial metaphors begin to come into play. Shere Khan’s advocacy for the separation between humans and animals due to the tradition of law can be viewed as the old ideas of white supremacy, perhaps even being representative of Rudyard Kipling himself. Mowgli and the rest of the animals are never made into specific races per say, but the film stresses that Mowgli and the rest of the animals unite as one in order to battle Shere Khan.
Kudos to Disney then for not only changing the theme but still keeping it appropriate for the animal-centered story. The problem that arises, however, is that The Jungle Book straddles the line on whether it wants to be a more serious film that tackles the issue of race or if it wants to be a much happier musical akin to its animated counterpart.
My critique isn’t one that faults the film for attempting to balance serious issues with comedy; in fact, I’ve even praised Disneys Zootopia for pulling that off. The flaw of The Jungle Book is that it doesn’t fully commit to either one of its atmospheres. Nods towards the animated film in forms of musical numbers are down-played so either seem out of place within the overall film or just half-baked.
Other scenes in the film serve as vignettes that are simply there to move Mowgli and the narrative forward and just don’t amount to much. Or for example, the battle scenes. While the animal models do look wonderful, The Jungle Book repeatedly becomes a spectacle of fighting CGI animals. The battles are loud and watching the animals fight is nothing short of awkward. There are moments with heart in the film, most of them coming from Baloo (Bill Murray), but what The Jungle Book lacks is passion, perhaps due to its extreme reliance on CGI.
The world is visually stunning and the animal models are believable, but what suffers is the dialogue. Lines from Mowgli come off as if he isn’t aware of what emotion to inflect his voice with and that may be, because he’s the only live actor on set. One can see Seel Nethi try his best working alone, and where he shines the most is in his physical prowess, which captures the spirit of the animal-like attitude of his character.
There’s no denying that The Jungle Book is a technological mastery. The vistas and animals are brought to life and look beautiful. The theme concerning race is made more appropriate but where The Jungle Book falls short is in creating something that’s more than just well crafted. The cold, beautiful world of computers leaves something to be wanted in raw emotion.