Beasts of burden

‘The Jungle Book’ carries too much weight

A fairly useless, albeit pretty, remake of a “classic tale” about a boy who lives in the jungle and… tries not to die?

The Jungle Book is director Jon Favreau’s “live-action” — if you count an entirely CGI environment with almost entirely CGI characters to be “live-action” — update of the classic Disney tale. A young boy, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is protected by a panther, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley); semi-raised by a wolf, Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o); befriends a bear, Baloo (Bill Murray); kinda-almost-sorta gets eat eaten by a snake, Kaa (Scarlett Johannson), and is trying not to get murdered by a big orangutan, King Louie (Christopher Walken), and a tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba). Those are the events.

I have questions.

I have many questions.

1.) Let’s set aside the dumb, weird plot quirks that could have metastasized at nearly any point during the slow growth from Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale to the hand-drawn Disney sing-song funfest to… whatever this mishmash of adventure porn and monkey terror is. What’s the message here? Man still holds dominion over beast? You can learn to be accepted in any mutually constructed, nontraditional community if you’re not a vegan?

2.) What in the name of “Randy Newman on PCP” were they thinking in how the songs were included? For the first long chunk before we met Baloo (admittedly the best part of the movie), joy was not in abundance. Little wolf cub puppies cried and missed their man-cub brother. Terror surrounded Mowgli everywhere, including a Johannson-voiced snake that is going to put the Freudian whammy on some soon-to-be-very-sexually-confused audience-goers. Then a bear shows up and they sing? Huh? I’ve long said it’s disorienting when cinematic adaptations of musicals suddenly have characters burst into song because that’s not the accepted language of film. But this is some next-level mind-screwery…

3.) No, seriously, what the hell is with the songs?! When King Louie shows up, he is straight-up terrifying. His bulbous primate moobs are gyrating all higgledy-piggledy as he rains unholy death upon those around him… while singing a catchy show tune? Did they not understand that a murder mammal singing “I Wanna Be Like You” makes it sound like, in the next scene, an orangutan voiced by Christopher Walken is going to be wearing Mowgli’s face on his face?

4) What was the tone the final climactic battle was aiming for? Narratively, the redemption for Mowgli was (literally) flimsy, as his growth appeared to be remembering which branches will send you to a hellish, fiery death if you step on them. Even if there’s no “moral to the story,” I’d love to understand what the filmmakers intended for me to be thinking about other than, “I think we’re about to have a jungle barbeque up in this joint. Hope tigers are good eating!”

All kidding aside, I don’t get The Jungle Book. Not this version at least. As a demonstration of technical prowess, showing how realistic talking animals have now become, it’s fine, I guess? I don’t know why we want our talking animals to be realistic because talking animals are… not realistic. But OK. For me, technical marvel without emotional grounding is masturbatory, special-effect self-congratulation. I don’t want to care how many hairs on Bagheera’s head move. I want to care what’s inside his head. But, hey, that’s just the bare necessities for me.

This review first appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Nebraska.

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