Every Generation Gets the 'Jungle Book' it Needs (Guest Column)

The Jungle Book Still 4 - H 2016
Courtesy of Disney

The Jungle Book Still 4 - H 2016

What is it with kids these days?  Are they uncouth and unruly, as if raised by wolves… and video games?  Or are they cosseted by parents who protect them at every turn, from the padded tables of toddlerdom to the self-esteem factories of childhood, from the digital tether of smartphones to the “safe environments” of college brochures? 

Does every generation need its own version of the Jungle Book?  Its own off-leash child in a loin cloth, raised by animals, magically freed from peanut allergies, orthodontia and scheduled playdates?  Yes, and perhaps no generation has needed Mowgli as much as this one does.  Civilization has taken us farther and farther from the claws and teeth of nature, into a bloodless world where adventure – and risk – is only virtual.

Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book reboot brings us back to the original freedom myth: the wild foundling boy. The roots of this dream extend back to Moses in the reeds and to Romulus and Remus, our first celebrity Wolf Adoptees. Favreau’s new version re-imagines the story, restoring a dimension of pure thrill and real threat to the tuneful, romping Disney classic of 1967.  Cutting the very edge of CG animation, this Jungle Book reinvents the concept of a free-range childhood in the age of the helicopter parent.  Blood included.

The appeal of the wild life has been with us for generations. In 1894, Rudyard Kipling started writing his Jungle Books not just to charm his own children, but to urge the sons and daughters of the industrial age to step outside their lace-curtained parlors.  The books were mammoth bestsellers, fueling Kipling’s ascent to global fame, culminating in the 1907 Nobel Prize.  Little wonder that the canny Edgar Rice Burroughs saw gold in the Mowgli stories long before Walt Disney.  In 1912, Burroughs published Tarzan, swapping in apes for wolves, and adding the grownup sex appeal that neither Kipling nor Disney wanted for their freebooting jungle boys. Kipling once wrote that Burroughs had “jazzed” the Mowgli plot in order to make Tarzan a hit.  Disney jazzed it one step further and made a swinging, bebopping sixties paean to the joys of an improvised life.  Disney’s loosest, hippest animated feature ever was also his last —  an indelible masterpiece of character animation that made the counter-cultural generation’s grab for freedom vivid, safe, and seriously playful.  Just remember the waggling nonchalance of Baloo and the long-armed liberty of King Louie.

In the 2016 reboot, Favreau brings back something that was lost in the freewheeling sixties:  adrenaline-pumping fear, uncut by song or slapstick.  Presenting the jungle world in lucid hyper-reality, the new film cannot help but evoke the crisp realism of Kipling’s original —  the snarling and the loathing, but also the all-too-human burdens of law, duty and work.  In the original stories, when Mowgli learns the ways of the wild from his mentor Baloo, his new tasks mean “as much to him as the work of his office means to a businessman.”  Favreau’s photorealistic Baloo picks up this thread from Kipling, not Disney, whose Baloo was always more a slacker than a supervisor.  Even in Bill Murray’s sly comic voicing, this bear has a work ethic to impress on his student.  After all, he needs to eat his body weight every day.  

The technical achievement that carries these themes is undeniable —  and would have impressed both Kipling and Disney, two great masters of technique who captured in words and pictures the imaginative horizons of childhood, the magnetic line where human law meets animal freedom. Pulling from a deep bench of animators with box office cred (on films like , Gravity and ), will have no trouble stunning audiences with a seamless and lush 3D world that blends minimal live-action sets with digitally-built environments. And yet this isn’t just for show: our ability to see the jungle’s 100 million leaves through Mowgli’s eyes depends on virtuoso immersive effects, as if we are adapting to the world as instinctively as Mowgli does.  Favreau’s reboot weds the moral realism of Kipling to the kinetic, windwhipped style of an urgent, first-person survival game or a turbo-charged, jungle-themed rollercoaster.

Favreau’s true challenge has been to prevent thrillingly realistic details from capsizing the story’s emotional core. This was also Kipling’s task.  In both text and film, the hard work of learning jungle law needs to be balanced by a strong sense of play, care and connection across species lines.  In one sense, Favreau’s task was made easier by the 1967 Disney version, which stripped away the overt themes of Kipling’s infamous White Man’s Burden, leaving in its place a subtler, more residual set of racial signs in the song-and-dance routines. Favreau’s jungle world manages to leave even the scatting excess of King Louie behind while reenergizing Kipling’s troubled, powerful sense of intimacy across cultural lines.  This requires a deft artistic touch more than sheer technical prowess.  Favreau even had to instruct his artists to make certain shots and elements less beautiful and interesting, lest the audience be overwhelmed.

In this way, the new Jungle Book faces challenges its highly-acclaimed CG predecessors did not. Where 3D extravaganzas like Avatar or Life of Pi could go all-out in exploiting their new medium to wondrous and uncanny ends, The Jungle Book needs to feel more natural, more like a down-to-earth animal fable such as 1995’s Babe.  Hence Favreau has enlisted big, lovable stars for the voices of Mowgli’s menagerie. Who wouldn’t thrill to the purr of Ben Kingsley’s Bagheera? Or melt at the menace of Idris Elba’s Shere Khan?  

But the personalities behind the film’s charismatic megafauna sometimes overtake their avatars.  Their sheer presence can loom over Neel Sethi’s Mowgli in a disjointed or meta way, amping up the thrill ride in one moment, recapturing the spectacle of helicopter parents in another.  Father figures lurk around every corner in this jungle game.  Favreau knows this and turns it to the film’s advantage. His technique is expertly varied and robust, at times insisting on capturing the actors’ presence as fully as possible, other times letting them recede into a more abstract plane. Christopher Walken’s ever-expressive face, for example, is modeled for King Louie through motion-capture technology, underlining the dangerous appeal of Walken’s loping escapism. As for Scarlett Johansson, her presence as one of Hollywood’s most famous bodies is displaced off screen (as in Spike Jonze’s Her), isolated behind the still, serpentine face of Kaa.  She hypnotically reminds us that sex — and the responsibility it entails — remains on the far edge of Mowgli’s playful world.  What threatens Mowgli in one breathless scene gets defanged in the next.

This Jungle Book exploits visual and kinetic possibilities that Disney’s amiable, musical fable of a boy among wolves never could have imagined. It also reinforces Kipling’s most reassuring theme:  that families can be made, found, chosen, adapted, and blended in any number of ways.  Even if Favreau’s jungle is –  like Kipling’s – a scarier place than Disney’s midcentury Eden, it is populated with a reliable menagerie of parental surrogates and helicopter beasts who watch over Mowgli at every turn.  Of course there is hard work in this new wilderness, and the task of feeling at home in an ever-stranger world is never easy for Mowgli, or for us.  But every trick we use to make things easier (every new app or life hack, every trendy mantra or trending hashtag that we think will set us free) still reminds us that we must adapt ourselves more and more to small and temporary adventures.  Cubicles, seatbelts, and rulebooks shape our days. We still want our jungle games, but we want them safely inside the lines of our theme parks, our computer displays, our heads.  As Scarjo’s Kaa says to Mowgli, “I know what you are. I know where you came from.”

Jed Esty is the Vartan Gregorian Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania;  he is writing a book called Cold War Victorians:  How the British Imagination Shaped American Culture. Cliff Mak is a visiting assistant professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross; he is writing a book called Virtuoso Beasts: Animal Style from Darwin to Disney.