‘The Jungle Book’ Review: Kipling’s Wow Glee

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Reading Time: 7 minutes


I’ve had a problem with 3-D ever since college. In the first year of my graduation class, I had to create on a sparkling white paper, the English language alphabetic letters in 3-D format using a drafter. I did my best, and when it was my turn to hand in my assignment, my teacher stared at the drawing paper and gave me a look that Napoleon might have given his general who broke the news that  fused the words “water” and “loo” into immortality. What he – my teacher, not Napoleon – said instead was, “What is this B? It’s standing there like a rabbit.” I wanted to strangle the chap with said drafter, but I didn’t think my parents would take too kindly to a telegram that read, “Send money order. Need bail money.”

This aversion to 3-D subconsciously (I think) came up as a residual trauma when it came to life in a cinema hall. For the longest time, I gave a wide berth to movies that were made in 3-D format. Given a choice, I’d watch the 2-D version, and if not released in one, avoid the movie completely. When I did foray into watching 3-D movies, the result was mixed bag, the mix leaned towards “Meh” than “Yay.” Life of Pie was nice, but the goggles were dirty. In Edge of Tomorrow, the goggles were clean, but the movie and effects were so-so. Man of Steel was so loud and dark (cinematographically) the noise made me jump, not the effects. The 3-D in Sholay was disappointing – and in any case, the original movie and Rahul Dev Burman’s soundtrack packed in more wallop than the rebooted effects and remastered sound.

Which is why, I approached director Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book with a slight awkwardness that bordered more on trepidation than hesitation.  After all, the 1967 Disney animation classic was a childhood memory happily spent in a rerun in Bombay’s Sterling theatre. But director Favreau and his team create a calligram of an experience that’s sure to have the sternest of all cynics smiling from ear to ear, when not dabbing their eyes in gratification. With writer Justin Marks writing a screenplay that melds Rudyard Kipling’s books and the 1967 movie, you’re taken right away into a world that’s magical, mystical, and dangerous, starting with the vanity logo.

The movie opens with a chase sequence with Mowgli  (Neel Sethi ) and a pack of wolves on the run, jumping lithely over jungle foliage, rocks, trees, branches, and you can’t see who or what they’re running away from. You wait with widening eyes to know. And that is the beauty of director Favreau’s vision. You know the story, you know what’s going to happen eventually. But when you’re in the world of The Jungle Book, there’s no time to think or second-guess the director. He drags you in, not as an unwilling spectator, but as a View-Master captive, and keeps you there all through the 105 minutes of his creation’s running.  It doesn’t matter what your age is, you’ll gasp, you’ll flinch, you’ll smile, you’ll laugh, and yes, you’ll swallow that lump in your throat.

Bagheera, Neel Sethi - dont be a man, be a wolf
Bagheera, Neel Sethi: don’t be a man, be a wolf

Favreau executes each shot with such brio, every moment in his movie is rad and nothing else. When in you’re in the thick of the jungle, every color and sound surrounding you with awe and wondrous joy of lush, you realize you can never outgrow the fairy tales that you read, your favorite family member read to you, or your grandparents told you. Heck, if you take your grandparents for this movie, they’ll reminisce their childhood fantasy tales. And that is the beauty of this movie – somehow, the director and his team seemed to have perforated your personal, in-your-mind vision of how a fantasy tale ought to look like, and presented it to you – it’s as if they made it only for you, and not for other gaping folks in the packed cinema hall.

Using some mind-boggling technology – key frame computer animation, performance capture, a new software to recreate the muscular grace of animals, multiplane cameras and so many other techniques that are as incomprehensible and unfathomable as they are stunning in their final delivery, the animals as expressive, if not more,  than any human actor you’d have seen – The Jungle  Book is your personal journey that’s as fantastic as it is relevant. And that makes almost every scene a highlight.

Shere Khan - when he roars, he thunders
Shere Khan: when he roars, he thunders

Note the scene where Shere Khan jumps in from nowhere and zips in for his first attack on Mowgli, and the hapless Bagheera tries to fight him, while the man cub makes a run for it – if you’d forgotten what visceral terror feels like, this scene will push your gagging face right into it. I’m not sure who in the hall remembered to breathe. And Favreau makes it interminably worse by adding a buffalo stampede, even as Mowgli and Shere Khan stare at each other.  When Shere Khan comes visiting the wolf pack, you’re as tense and wound up as the pack’s and Mowgli’s mother, Raksha. When Mowgli leaves his family of wolves to rejoin the man village, he bids an emotional goodbye to Raksha. This sounds ludicrous on paper, but this scene is so beautifully executed, you don’t realize it’s an interaction between a human being and a CGI-generated wolf. All you realize is that you’re moved…maybe even to tears. That’s the beauty of this movie – connecting cognitive events to body language to expressions between boy and the animals that love him, giving rise to emotions that are all too familiar and human.  And then of course, there’s that fiery climactic scene where Favreau has you grip the sides of your seat in the cinema hall in reflexive horror and tension, your eyes as wide as saucers, refusing to blink.

Neel Sethi, Ka - slithering barnacles
Neel Sethi, Ka: slithering barnacles

The Jungle Book has an absolutely evocative and moving music score by John Debney. In the opening chase sequence, he employs some frantically loping, Jethro Tull-ish flute, that adds to the pace and tension. In the goodbye scene between Raksha and Mowgli ,his violins float into your heart, only to break it. In the climax, he uses a thrilling combination of searing violins and a haunting chorus that has you hanging by the tether. Plus, of course, the songs that make you want to tap your feet in joy and nostalgia.

Of the human cast, Neel Sethi as Mowgli is it. As someone on whose acting skills and credulity hinges the entire emotional pivot of the plot, the child actor does an admirable job. More so when you consider the fact that Sethi had only animal puppet figures to act with, and you realize just how irritatingly and emotionally effective he is.

But The Jungle Book wouldn’t have been the brilliance it is, without the actors who breathed life into the life-like expressive animals. Ben Kingsley as Bagheera is fatherly, caring and protective, his voice reassuringly smooth.  Scarlett Johansson as the hypnotic snake Ka is fantastic – her words slithy, as if the reptile’s tongue were lashing on the edge of crystal-clear cymbals. Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha, Mowgli’s surrogate mother, is simply beautiful – her voice heaving an innate quality that radiates maternal love, worry, and fear. Then there’s Bill Murray lending voice to Baloo the bear – he’s so good, so flippantly and cuddlingly charming, you wouldn’t mind getting some honey for him before his self-proclaimed hibernation. He does a neat job on the The Bare Necessities number, as does Christopher Walken on I Wan’na Be Like You.  The latter’s superb as the lumbering, gigantic orangutan, King Louie. It’s also heartbreaking to hear the great Garry Shandling one last time as Ikki the porcupine. And finally, hanging like a pallor of death and terror over the entire enterprise is the masterful Ibris Elba. Elba is as sinewy and terrifying as the onscreen Shere Khan, his voice swinging between a velvety growl to a menacing, gut churning roar of vengeance.  Elba makes your blood curdle in sheer fright, and you realize he’s done one up on his smooth animal act in the brilliant TV series, The Wire.

Neel Sethi, Baloo -  bear necessities
Neel Sethi, Baloo: bear necessities

There’s another reason why Jon Favreau’s reboot is a triumph. He is possibly the only filmmaker this side of the century, who, using animation and raw emotions, actually connects and brings all of us in touch with animals. Animals, who, even as we maraud Mother Nature in our quest for economic triumph and development, are helpless victims of destruction. Which is why, Bagheera’s advice to Mowgli to fight Shere Khan as a man and not an animal, is heart-breakingly telling and ironical. You also think, as you watch the scene of water truce – where all animals in the jungle agree to share the only water body available – and are reminded of the alarming water situation that looms over us and the only bottom line we can come up with, as we debate the El Niño graphs is, “The next world war will be fought over water.” Favreau  also reminds us that if the current deforestation rate continues, the only place future generations will see a jungle is in his movie.

The Jungle Book, then, sprinkles magic dust on life in a cinema hall, making Kipling’s classic a feast of wow and glee. And yes, 3-D technology is all the more better for it. As Baloo says, “I could get used to it.” The trouble is, you’ve already gotten used to it. Be it an alphabet trying to be a rabbit, a CGI-created rabbit shimmering across the screen to you, or a superhero fighting another superhero (over water?), the next 3-D movie has its work cut out.

Watch the trailer of The Jungle Book here:

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