Last night my family and I went to the new Disney movie Jungle Book directed by John Favreau. It was the movie version I have been waiting for all my life.
The amazing thing about this movie is the way it took the book and layered its themes and central idea on top of the classic 60’s Disney cartoon. The music is still there and intact, though mostly moved to the end credits. The kid is still cute and mostly vulnerable, at least until the conclusion. And they have still given the Disneyesque comedic touch to the character of Baloo the bear, voiced by comedian Bill Murray in the this incarnation. But this is a live action movie and the kid-friendly Bowdlerization of the original story is a thing no longer.
Fortunately for the young actor, Neel Sethi, they don’t require him to play the entire movie naked as would be required by a strictly by-the-book approach. They allow him the Disney-dignity of the cartoon red loin cover. But the sense of a human child facing the violence of the jungle naked, armed only with his creature-appropriate natural defenses, has been put back into the story. This version literally has teeth and claws. We see the boy’s body wounded and scarred during the course of his life in the jungle. And at a time of crucial confrontation, Mowgli takes the defense stolen from man village, a torch of the feared red flower, and throws it away into the water, facing the terrible tiger with only his wits and the abilities of his fangless, clawless human body. Thus, an essential theme I loved about the book when I was twelve is restored. Man has a place in the natural world even without the protections of civilization.
The story-telling is rich and nuanced, with multiple minor characters added. Gray Brother has been restored to Mowgli’s family. The fierce power of Mowgli’s wolf mother has been written back into the screenplay. And the character of Akela is given far more importance in the story than the cartoon could even contemplate. Although his role in aiding Mowgli to kill the tiger Shere Khan has been taken away from him, Akels’s death becomes the central motivation bringing Mowgli and Shere Khan together for the final inevitable confrontation. And this movie does not shy away from the reality of death as the cartoon did, resurrecting Baloo at the end and Kaa’s attempts to eat Mowgli being turned into a joke (though I would like to note if you have never read the book, Kaa is not supposed to be a villain. He was Mowgli’s wise and powerful friend in the book). Even the tiger survives in the cartoon version. This is no longer a cute cartoon story with a Disney sugared-up ending.
I will always treasure the 1960’s cartoon version. I saw it at the Cecil Theater in Mason City, Iowa when I was ten. I saw it with my mother and father and sisters and little brother. It was my favorite Disney movie of all time at that point in my life. I read and loved the book two years after that, a paperback copy that I bought with my own money from Scholastic book club back in 1968, in Mrs. Reitz’s sixth grade classroom. That copy is dog-eared, but still in my library. But this movie is the best thing that could possibly happen to bring all of that love of the story together and package it in a stunning visual experience.