Beautiful Jungle Book movie can’t handle its meaty themes

Among its other themes, The Jungle Book as an interesting refrain of authority figures. Every animal the child Mowgli (Neel Sethi) meets represents a different kind of adult influence. There’s the wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), his loving mother figure; the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), a disciplinarian father figure; the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a fascist who upholds the law of the jungle through fear; the snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), a sexual predator; the bear Baloo (Bill Murray), an aloof hippie; and the orangutan King Louie (Christopher Walken), a mobster. Photos courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

The Jungle Book follows Mowgli, a man-cub raised by the ruling pack of the jungle. But when Shere Khan, a giant antagonist cat with a scarred left eye, discovers his presence, Mowgli is driven away. After a scene involving a stampede through a ravine in which his guardian father-figure cat is presumably killed, Mowgli escapes the jurisdiction, and his scar-faced pursuer returns to claim the throne for himself. Mowgli is adopted by a fat stoner animal, and they sing a catchy jingle about nihilism. Mufasa Bagheera returns, and Mowgli learns that Scar Shere Khan is wreaking havoc on his home. He returns for vengeance, and the whole place conspicuously catches fire. The scar-faced cat is eventually thrown into a pit of flames and Mowgli is cleared of all wrong-doing.

In short, things are going to be pretty awkward between this movie and the live-action Lion King revamp that’s inevitably coming down the pike.

Another aspect of Jungle Book that undermines itself is by far its coolest character, Shere Khan. Perfectly willing and able to kill anyone that looks at him sideways, Shere Khan’s menace haunts the jungle. The best parts are when his killing someone, or when he’s about to kill someone or when he’s threatening to kill someone, but he only kills one animal the entire movie.

The Jungle Book is drop-dead gorgeous, boasts one of the best voice casts ever assembled and engages in some surprisingly grim themes, though it doesn’t follow them through. Visual realism is traded in for smoothness and size. The animals tower over the nine-year-old Mowgli and envelope him in the frame, lending a sense of helplessness to the audience. Color is used beautifully to service the story. The soundtrack, mostly variations on the nostalgic theme of “Bare Necessities,” will put a smile on your face and a dance in your step. There are a lot of problems with this movie, but it would take a truly heartless man to leave the theater unhappy.

Unfortunately, the visceral details break down. A lot of the lines give a vague impression that they’re being spoken in the wrong order, or have been edited into the wrong order to fit the animation. A lot of the sound effects are just weird. There’s a point early in the film when Mowgli throws a flimsy vine rope over a branch to pull fruit down where he can reach it, and a whiplash sound effect is added. There’s a lot at work here to take the viewer out of the movie. This movie has an astonishingly deep story, but scenes are rushed just barely enough so that they don’t have room to breathe, and everything that happens lacks the emotional weight it deserves because of it.

Where the movie really lets itself down, though, is with how much better its thematic elements could have been. Mowgli is a prodigy with using vines to make rope contraptions, solving his problems with human ingenuity rather than lupine stamina. However, his “tricks” are discouraged by his adoptive wolf father, Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) as “not the wolf way.” This is Shere Khan’s objection to Mowgli’s presence — he has seen humanity’s engineering feats and found them inherently destructive, particularly to nature. The animal kingdom as a whole is particularly fearful of fire, which they refer to with the fear of a careless god — “Man has the power to summon the Red Flower,” which “brings light and heat but destroys all that it touches.” This sets the movie up to be about human nature’s inventiveness vs its destructiveness, with that conflict set up against Shere Khan’s desire to kill Mowgli before he destroys the forest and his utilitarian willingness to kill anyone else if they get in his way, remarkably heavy material for a remake of a movie that weighed in at 78 minutes soaking wet.

Most songs in the original Jungle Book are clearly only there to kill time. The only one anybody remembers is “Bare Necessities,” and this new Jungle Book does well to cut all the other musical numbers out. Then it gets to King Louie’s part and keeps the monstrous orangutan mob boss covered mostly in deep shadow, but still highlights his bright red coat for symbolic purposes, and ruins the whole bit completely by having the Walken-voiced ape break out into “I Wan’na Be Like You.” This is another misstep for the film.

The film’s ambition is undermined by its target audience. This movie calls for mass destruction and death, but it chickens out to keep the kids in the audience happy. Only a couple of name characters are killed, and though the forest is eventually burnt to the ground, this isn’t given any moral weight. Shere Khan is proven completely right, but everyone turns on him, and Mowgli’s costly indiscretion is quickly forgotten after the climactic battle. The moral of the story is even if you’re an ever-present risk to destroy the entire forest and clearly can’t be allowed to follow your passion for inventing things, it’ll all be ignored as long as you aren’t a big meany-head.

The film’s pacing problems and unwillingness to imbue its story with the devastating emotional weight it deserves are also a function of the toddler target demographic, but that logic has been proven wrong time and time again. The Incredibles and Wall-E, two of the best children’s movies ever made, cover a lot of the same ground about exceptionalism and mankind’s inherently destructive nature, and a lot of the reason they’re so good is they don’t pull any punches and don’t talk down to their young audience, creating movies that are both kid-friendly and endlessly rewatchable even into old age.

Do not mistake me, The Jungle Book deserves every iota of the critical praise it’s receiving, but it’s painful to think of exactly how much better this movie could have been.

Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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