*There may be a few minor spoilers, but hopefully nothing too major*
“You’re not a wolf, Mowgli; you’re a MAN.”
This phrase gets repeated a lot in Disney’s latest live-action adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s most famous novel. And whilst this film looks fantastic, has a stellar cast of voice actors and, perhaps most impressively of all, pulls off the technical feat of rendering CGI talking animals which are completely convincing as characters, it does seem a little confused by what it means by the nature of ‘Man’.
The film opens at a cracking pace, with Mowgli running with the wolf pack at full tilt through the jungle . He soon takes to the trees but is hunted down by Bagheera, who warns him that if he is to be safe in the jungle he must behave like the wolves, stick with the pack, and stop using his human tricks and ingenuity. Ah-ha! says I, I sense the beginnings of a Disney-tastic ‘be yourself’ plot arc happening here. The first half of the film seems to want us to invest in a narrative where Mowgli must learn to be a man in order to evade or defeat the tiger Shere Khan, and which will ultimately mean his having to wield fire or the ‘Red Flower’ as the ultimate symbol of man’s power.
Trouble is, the script seems to be pulled in a few too many directions when it comes to deciding which version of the source material it is trying to adapt and what its core message is about man and nature. Having gone to such great lengths to acquire fire, Mowgli is immediately told he must reject its destructive power but then, seconds later, facing the prospect of imminent tiger-mauling, is told to ‘fight him like a man, not like a wolf’. Now, I’ve personally never fought a tiger, but the thought does occur that fire would probably come in handy there! The final act plays out more like the end of Bambi, where nature is imperilled by ‘Man in the jungle’ and Mowgli must reintegrate into animal society under the aegis of god-like elephants, rather than becoming the King of the Jungle and master of nature that we find in Kipling’s high-Victorian original.
Elephants, Bears and Snakes
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a huge problem. If anything, it’s a fascinating flaw – to see how masculinities get adapted for new generations. Gone, for instance, are the bumbling Colonel-Blimp-style elephants who embody the fading glory of the Empire, Baloo no longer reeks of unwashed 1960s hippie, and there’s not a John, Paul, George or Ringo to be found. One of the most visually interesting scenes is also the scene which most overtly rejects the notion of the superiority of man over the natural world that underpins Kipling’s original. When Mowgli arrives at the Man village we see human shapes moving around in front of the camp fire, but the scene is shot in such a way that it is impossible to tell who these people might be, or to decipher any meaningful human communication between them. They are completely alien and the scene is a beautiful contrast with an earlier one of animals coming together in harmonious society during a ‘water truce.’ Becoming a man, whether ‘Man’ signifies ‘civilizer’, ‘member of society’, ‘imperial power in India’, ‘King of the Jungle’ or any number of other readings that have been projected onto Mowgli in the past, is the less important to this movie than the vaguely-defined idea of being in harmony with nature which seems more geared towards a generation of children who have been brought up to buy fair trade and think about their carbon footprint.
One element of this film’s slightly confused gender message that Jon Favreau and his writers have pitched perfectly is that, whilst the new Jungle Book is ostensibly a coming of age story, it is not a coming of sexuality story.
Unlike the 1967 version (or, indeed, the bizarre 1994 adaptation featuring a very young Lena Headey), Mowgli is not convinced to return to human society by a wink from a somewhat worryingly sexualised nine-year-old girl. The most sexualised being in Favreau’s film is Kaa, voiced by the Scarlett Johansson. Now I was more than a little bit sceptical of this casting choice but Johansson’s voice drips sexuality in a way that is alarmingly effective in making you squirm with Freudian discomfort. In a world which is otherwise devoid of adult sexuality Kaa evokes the femme fatale, the serpent of the garden of Eden, and sexuality as threat. It’s a great casting decision, although it does leave adult viewers with the question of how Mowgli, after rejecting human civilization, is going to attain adult sexuality in years to come.
Aside from some thematic confusion, and a few clunky moments where the film can’t decide whether it wants to be a musical or not (I hate to say it, but maybe the songs would have been better left alone) The Jungle Book is a really solid adventure movie. Even more than that, it is a testament to the artistic merit of this new spate of live-action remakes which the Disney studios seem to have decided are the way forward. I’m not going to lie, I was underwhelmed by Cinderella and I’m not holding out too much hope for Beauty and the Beast, but the Jungle Book makes a great case for compelling adaptations of animal movies and for updating stories from that slightly flat period in the 1960s and 70s when the Disney studio were re-using a lot of material and suffering diminishing returns prior to the advent of the Little Mermaid. It does make you wonder if the time might be right to explore in live action the aesthetic world of Paris during the belle epoch with a new version of The Aristocats, or the streets of the early-twentieth-century American Midwest with Lady and the Tramp. I suspect, though, given the buffalo stampede in the Jungle Book, that Disney may have their sights firmly set on The Lion King and are testing out their CGI capabilities before taking it on.