The Jungle Book
Produced and distributed by Disney Pictures
Directed by Jon Favreau
Screenplay by Justin Marks from Rudyard Kipling’s book
Produced and distributed by Warner Brothers
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols
Are the Disney executives rethinking their political correctness? You know, their belief that homosexuals and transgender folk are uniformly good and noble, that feminists can easily outrun and outfight men, that minorities are always and everywhere generously disposed to take on the black man’s—no, make that the black folks’—burden, i.e., sluggardly whites. These are the immutable truths Disney has been laboring to instill in us for the past quarter-century, largely because that’s where the money is. After all, the LGBT community has scads of disposable income to draw on, which explains those annual gaycations that Disney sponsors in its theme parks. (Hey, it’s not the 50’s anymore. And don’t dare look for gender-segregated restrooms—not in Mickey’s vicinity!)
Well, here we are in 2016, and Disney has returned to an earlier path, one you would expect to embarrass the executives. In 1967, the studio adapted The Jungle Book, a story by that hopeless racist and imperial jingoist, Rudyard Kipling. Without a tincture of embarrassment, however, Disney has returned to Kipling’s inspiration. Why so impolitic? Again: money! This is Disney’s fourth foray into the Indian jungle. Political correctness be damned: They’ve determined to capitalize on their earlier investments.
Of course, Disney has taken heat for some of the studio’s previous renditions of Kipling’s wolf boy, Mowgli. Some critics deemed his cartoon rendering insufficiently Indian. Others complained of a lack of feminine presence. And, of course, there’s that blasted legacy of the Brits in India. Their meddling replaced the endless and incomprehensible mosaic of regional dialects with an officially unifying language and bestowed a native-run national civil service. And, after all that, they withdrew their official presence in 1949 when the Indians were ready to assume self-rule, though many of them unfortunately still went in for incinerating wives on their husbands’ funeral pyres. But let’s not dwell on imperialist cavils. Let the past be wrapped in a cloud of unknowing.
In a seemingly miraculous fusion of a live-action actor and computer-generated beasts, Disney has brought Mowgli back to the screen in the person of Neel Sethi, an Indian-American boy of ten whose physiognomy and accent seem to have done the trick of rendering him at once p.c. and appealing to stateside audiences. I recall being somewhat discomfited by Sabu’s portrayal of Mowgli in Alexander Korda’s 1942 filming of the story. Sabu was an Indian who had been taken up by the British film industry in the late 1930’s and who later emigrated to America where he starred in several subcontinent-themed films. I first encountered him on television in the early 1950’s. The Andy Devine show (Andy’s Gang) used to play ten-minute clips from Korda’s film every Sunday morning. At age seven, it took me several installments before I could adjust my racial sensitivities. Sabu was darker and plumper lipped than I had been willing to accept of a hero. As those Sunday-morning broadcasts multiplied, however, they wore down my resistance. Yes, his accent was a trifle odd, and he seemed to lisp, but there Sabu was, bravely confronting all those animals, including a tiger and a cobra. He was clearly heroic. I was unaware that most of the animals were provided courtesy of stock footage pulled from the voluminous studio vaults and spliced into the action, and not so seamlessly at that. Technology has now swept away this problem. The animals in this latest version are as visually convincing as those you might meet while on safari. What’s more, when they speak, as they do regularly, their mouths, beaks, and snouts move according to the consonants, vowels, and glottal stops they’re pronouncing. They even smile and frown, however subtly. The attention to detail goes further than this. When Mowgli runs his hand through an animal’s fur, the bristles are put out of place and stay that way, at least momentarily. How many programming hours went into that? Of course, one could complain that these technically created illusions, however marvelous, are nevertheless in the service of a vulgar verisimilitude inimical to genuine art. I would take this aesthetic stance myself, except that here the results are so magical that it would be churlish to complain.
Besides, director Jon Favreau and his team have not contented themselves with trompe-l’œil. Take the opening sequence. In its 3D presentation (which, by the way, is the only way to see this film), we feel pulled into the jungle as Mowgli runs and leaps away from us. It’s as if we, with our civilized predilections, were intent on chasing away a minor menace. This makes sense given Mowgli’s wild-child origins. Neither he nor we would be especially comfortable inhabiting the same space.
While all the film’s creatures are remarkably rendered, some are more noteworthy than others. Bagheera, the exceptionally kind panther who first rescues Mowgli from death and then turns him over to his adoptive wolf family, is so gravely voiced by Ben Kingsley that you never doubt his honorable intentions nor his judgement. Contrary to Kipling’s text, however, that voice is employed to warn Mowgli of the tricks of mankind—tools, swinging on vines, and, most of all, fire. (In the novel Bagheera prized Mowgli’s inventive know-how.) Bill Murray has been brought in to voice Baloo, the bear who is here transformed from the original’s serious guardian to a wise-cracking, manipulative rascal. As such he’s one of several instances of Favreau being faithful not to Kipling but to Disney. In the 1967 cartoon, Phil Harris portrayed Baloo with irrepressible savoir faire, belting out his signature song “Bare Necessities,” which went on to become a popular ditty on record and radio. Then there’s King Looie, an immense orangutan, a wholly Disney invention, that provided both comedy and menace in the earlier works and does so again with the splendid work of Christopher Walken, who gives a jazzy identity to the monstrous ape. Idris Elba, playing the tiger Shere Khan, drawls nearly as menacingly as did George Sanders in the 1967 production. Kaa, the immense rock python, just may be Disney’s deference to the trans community. He’s been transformed from a he to a she, and is voiced by Hollywood’s seductress du jour, Scarlett Johansson. She uses her sibilantly insinuating voice to lull Mowgli into a trance, the better to render him ready for swallowing.
As you can infer, little of this is strictly Kipling. It’s rather an amalgam of the original and Disney’s riffs on the story. Even Mowgli’s Promethean role as fire-giver is treated far more sensationally than Kipling had envisioned. Yet the movie is too entertaining for me to complain seriously. It also has the benefit of providing a forecast of where the film industry is headed. How long will it be before the biz starts replacing human actors with CGI simulations? Why pay extravagant salaries to George Clooney and Charlize Theron when you can use far-less-expensive and infinitely more compliant CGI resources?
Speaking of CGI, Midnight Special could have used a good deal more. The film, directed by Jeff Nichols, has won accolades from many notable critics—A.O. Scott, Anthony Lane, and Michael Phillips, to name a few. This puzzles me exceedingly.
The movie seems to me an amateurish rehashing of several stale science-fiction conceits employed in the service of a story about domestic tensions. This could have been made tolerable with some interesting special effects, but, no, Nichols has chosen to make do with strange lights in the sky, as did Steven Spielberg in his wildly overpraised Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Nichols has distinguished his project by adding laser-like lights that occasionally flash blindingly from the eyes of an eight-year-old boy. Disappointingly, although aliens are at work in the plot, we don’t see any. At least, I didn’t. Other than the suspicious lights, Nichols serves up several enormous structures that reminded me of the cover illustrations of Analog and Galaxy in the 1950’s—graceful imaginings of what future cities would look like if architects would only abandon the fundamentals of engineering. The sweeping balustrades lead to buildings that rise to impossible heights. And still, no aliens in sight. Wait—that’s not quite true: Images of Superman show up in a comic book the boy reads intently by flashlight to his father’s annoyance. Is this an oblique reference to the film’s toying with the theme of extraterrestrial-provided salvation? Its title must come from the prison song made famous by several blues men, including Lead Belly, and featuring the railway-inspired redemptive refrain, “Let the Midnight Special shine her ever-loving light on me.”
The film opens in a lightless motel room. Roy (Michael Shannon), a man in his mid 30’s, is rousing the boy (Jaeden Lie berher) from under a sheet. Another man, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), stands in the adjoining room. It’s pitch dark as they hustle the kid into the back seat of a car where he sits obediently, wearing swim goggles and noise-deafening headphones. Have they kidnapped him? For ransom? To escape the wrath of a troublesome mother? No answer. They roar down country roads wordlessly. When the men finally speak, they do so cryptically. By this time, Lucas has put on night-vision goggles. Are they meant to parallel the boy’s goggles? Who knows.
Performances by some very talented actors make all of this bearable: Shannon, who has cornered the market on portentous glowering; Edgerton, whose metier is well-intentioned bafflement; and Kirsten Dunst, who has mastered the art of making ordinariness attractive. They’re all very good in service to what seems to me an intolerably long shaggy-dog story. Then there’s Adam Driver, whose gangly, wet-lipped performances have been inexplicably featured in several recent films—most notably, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He’s the kind of weird-looking actor you would suppose to be an undercover alien. Whether he is, I won’t say. The point may be moot anyway: Driver plays an NSA agent.
Slowly, we’re fed the news that Roy is the boy’s father, and that he is rescuing his son from a cult known as the Third Heaven Ranch, which was founded on the boy’s seemingly supernatural powers. Branch Davidians revisited, perhaps?
The mystery here is not one of alien invasion but of critical misprision.