Kipling’s Jungle Book is a work of art and the most recent cinematic adaptation takes care to stay in the background and simply provide a platform for Kipling to reach out and tell us his timeless story.
“Imagine that you are seated before a fire. You are in a glade of a great forest; towering trees surround you, clothed in a cloak of blackness broken by a thousand sparklers, the myriad tropical fireflies. Close your eyes and listen to my tales of tigers, of adventure and mystery, as the jungle breezes waft the night scent of the wild flowers on a cool current that fans your brow, and remember that you are in a land where time is of no consequence and the word ‘hurry’ is never spoken.”
An intoxicating invitation and such may well have been the words of a rambunctious Mowgli or a wise Bagheera. They may also have been the words of Akela, the wolf leader, Baloo, the fun-loving sloth bear, Raksha, the brave mother or Kaa, the mysterious python.
In truth, the excerpt is from a book Jungles Long Ago by Kenneth Anderson. Anderson was a Scotsman who called the jungles of southern India home and whose enthralling narratives of man-eating tigers, crafty panthers and ponderous bisons; impossible adventures; and hypnotically beautiful people transport you into a world that quite simply doesn’t exist anymore.
The Jungle Book does that too.
Rudyard Kipling’s classic story of a baby brought to boyhood by a pack of wolves, a black panther and a bear has something in it for everyone. And Jon Favreau’s cinematic adaption doesn’t disappoint either.
The first point that must be made is the scale and quality of technical resources behind The Jungle Book’s production. The opening sequence in Disney’s latest phantasmagorical creation — Neel Seethi’s all-action and acrobatic dash through the jungle, leaping over fallen trunks, climbing trees and swinging on vines — is excellent and when Bagheera finally pins young Mowgli down and you’re treated to an up-close and personal view of those razor sharp fangs, you’d be hard-pressed to believe you’re looking at CGI animation and not a real, live black panther.
Sethi is fun to watch and eminently believable as the man-cub. He doesn’t have a great deal to do in terms of carrying the narrative. But what little needs to be done is accomplished neatly. The only negative point you’re likely to see is the confrontation with King Louie. Whether it’s just that Christopher Walken’s unique brand of comic creepiness steals the scene or it is just an off-day of sorts, Sethi fades away for those few moments.
Ben Kinglsey is nearly perfect as Bagheera, right from his caustic opening line about running with the pack to when he acknowledges Mowgli’s human roots. If one were to venture a criticism though, some of Kingsley’s deliveries seem just a little flat. Particularly, when he meets Baloo and the pair discuss Mowgli.
Idris Elba is menacing as Shere Khan; Scarlett Johansson is perfect as the sensual Kaa; Bill Murray does a fine job as the laid-back Baloo. And Walken is just your friendly neighbourhood homicidal orangutan.
The entire cast is excellent and one assumes this is, in large part, to the credit of Jon Favreau. The director refrains from meddling too much with the story and the original narrative and characters.
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That said, it would have been wonderful to see a little more of Kaa. Listening to Johansson’s soft and seductive voice is always a treat. And that is potentially a slightly sticky point in The Jungle Book.
Mowgli’s escape from Shere Khan (the scene with wild buffaloes will really get your heart racing!) acted as the perfect transition from the cheerful, lush greenery of the southern reaches of the jungle to the gloomier, murkier and more mysterious places Mowgli finds himself in. All of sudden Sethi is stripped of everything that is familiar and is thrown, so to speak, to the wolves.
And what should become a pivotal point in the narrative — when we finally learn about Mowgli’s human roots — feels a little rushed. It’s almost as if Favreau isn’t all that keen on fleshing out his hero’s character and backstory.
More effort and energy seem to have gone into the CGI scenes and technical aspects than on the script/cast. With a line-up like this, you probably don’t need to anyway!
Either way the result is fabulous. Kipling’s Jungle Book is a work of art and its most recent screen adaptation takes care to stay in the background and provide a platform for Kipling to reach out and tell us his timeless story.
Here’s hoping The Jungle Book: Part 2 rolls around soon. After all, Shanthi has still to make her appearance.
By Chandrashekhar Srinivasan