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‘The Jungle Book’ rewritten

| Tuesday, April 19, 2016

jungle book webSusan Zhu | The Observer

Remaking a classic is dangerous territory. It presents the challenge of bringing something new to the story without corrupting its original value. “The Jungle Book” (1967) is a classic for a reason. Jon Favreau, director of the 2016 film, makes his mission clear when he appears onscreen to introduce the movie. Having grown up, like many in the audience, watching the Rudyard Kipling original, Favreau conveys a respect for his predecessor and the goal of maintaining the integrity of “The Jungle Book.” Disney animated films are so ubiquitous, revisiting them often draws the director too far in the direction of edginess, as was the case in “Alice in Wonderland” (2010). Luckily, “The Jungle Book” doesn’t fall into this trap, but instead preserves the fundamental themes of the original. However, that’s not to say it doesn’t add anything new.

The villains are uniquely sinister. Shere Khan (Idris Elba), the tiger who pursues Mowgli, is more hostile than ever, and yet elicits sympathy — he appears with a badly-scarred face, an injury he incurred from a man: Mowgli’s own father. His intolerance of Mowgli’s kind is rooted in injury, which is just one example of the political undertones in the film. King Louie (Christopher Walken) alludes to a mob boss; he gives Mowgli “an offer he can’t refuse.” The hypnotic snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) has a new element of seductiveness, when she meets Mowgli alone in the jungle, telling him “I’ll keep you close” as she prepares to make him her meal.

Baloo (Bill Murray) returns as a lovable carefree bear, but he’s not entirely altruistic — he’s a con artist, who only begins his relationship with Mowgli to help him amass a huge store of honey. That doesn’t invalidate their whole relationship — it grows more genuine, culminating in a bluesy rendition of “The Bare Necessities.” Mowgli’s guardian figures are strengthened as well: His mother-wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and his jaguar protector Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) exude poise and wisdom.

The politics of the jungle are a carefully constructed system. Living among the wolves, Mowgli recites a pledge which says, “The strength of the wolf is the strength of the pack.” Lead by their alpha, the wolves support each other and protect their own, with no lack of interaction with the other animals of the jungle. During the dry season, when drinking is more important than eating, the jungle enters a truce and animals are allowed to gather around Peace Rock unharmed. The elephants, who in the original film were represented as a militia, are instead serene mystics who are believed to have created everything in the jungle, and Mowgli is required to bow before them out of respect.

Reminders of the political violence in human society are at the forefront: Shere Khan terrorizes the jungle in his witch-hunt for the man-cub, fueled by bigotry against mankind. He overtakes the wolf pack by killing their leader, and rules them by instilling fear, and Mowgli is left a refugee, forced to flee home with his life at risk. “The Jungle Book” doesn’t focus only on the big picture — it also zeroes in on the individual experience of Mowgli, a man-cub who doesn’t exactly fit in anywhere in the jungle, but knows he has no place among men either. Like “Avatar” in 2009, “The Jungle Book” allows audience members to perceive political violence in a way that is relatable yet distant.

This all takes place on a beautiful jungle backdrop, which can be, at times, dark and ominous. CGI characters interact seamlessly with the live actor Mowgli, but flashy effects are not relied upon too heavily. In the necessary action scenes, particularly when Mowgli is dragged away by monkeys and in the final fight scene, the motion of the animals is realistic, while Mowgli’s exaggerated movements bring an element of playfulness reminiscent of the animated character.

With the movie, Favreau accomplished what has never been done before with a classic Disney film, at least never on such a huge scale. He recreated “The Jungle Book” without abandoning its essence, and his achievement begs the question, can the classics be replaced? Years from now, when people talk about “The Jungle Book,” they might be referring to this film in the place of the original. It takes time for a Disney classic to lend itself to this kind of remake. We may not be ready for another “The Lion King,” but “Peter Pan” and “The Aristocats,” as closer contemporaries to “The Jungle Book” that enjoy equal fondness, may be potential opportunities.

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