THE JUNGLE BOOK is the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a boy living in the jungles of India. Orphaned as a baby, Mowgli was found by a panther named Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley). Bagheera brought him to the wolfpack and asked that they watch over him. As the story begins, Mowgli – “the man cub” – is training with the pack to learn the nature of the wolves. Shortly thereafter, a drought affects the jungle which brings all species to the watering hole at the same time. With the water line so low, a formation called The Peace Rock is in sight, meaning all who come may only drink; none may hunt.
This truce brings a tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba) into the larger community, even though he is one of the most-feared predators in the jungle. It’s here that the tiger first lays eyes on Mowgli, and asks that the wolfpack leader, Akeela (Giancarlo Esposito) hand him over. Akeela refuses, so Shere Khan warns that when the drought is over, he will come for him again under less civil pretense. Before that can happen, Mowgli decides to leave the pack – not wanting to be the cause of dissension in such loyal ranks. The decision causes great worry and pain to his adopted wolf mother Raksha (Lupita N’yongo), but with Bagheera offering to guide him, becomes a decision she is able to live with.
Unfortunately, Mowgli’s sacrifice is in vain, as after unsuccessfully trying to hunt The Man Cub, Shere Khan returns and backs the wolfpack into a corner. Mowgli will be his, and until he is, the pack will suffer slowly.
Mowgli, meanwhile gets separated from Bagheera and begins to meet many different creatures as he wanders deeper into the woods.
He meets a python named Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) who lulls Mowgli with the story of how he came to be orphaned in the jungle in the first place, and what Shere Khan has against him. He then meets a brown bear named Baloo (Bill Murray), who takes a shining to the lad helped in no small part by the way he is able to use his human tricks to help the ursine dope score honey from the highest reaches. They form a quick and close bond that doesn’t entirely sit well with Bagheera when he finally catches up with the pair.
Finally, Mowgli stumbles his way into a barrel of monkeys who bring him before their leader – a Gigantopithecus named King Louie (Christopher Walken). Louie sees The man Cub as a way to acquire something that will help him truly rule the jungle, but is Mowgli willing to hand it over? And what to make of Shere Khan laying in wait back in the larger community Mowgli has left behind?
There’s a great deal of joy interwoven into this new iteration of THE JUNGLE BOOK, and goes a long way towards saving it from “pointless remake” status. Besides the superb voice casting that allows the characters to come to life in subtly beautiful ways, there’s also been great leaps in animation that has brought more expressiveness to their faces. What we get, as a result, is a greater realization of Bagheera’s protectiveness, Raksha’s love, and Baloo’s dopey camaraderie.
A great deal of the sharpness in THE JUNGLE BOOK comes from its villains, and the cautionary tales they become. Kaa stands in (slithers in?) as the soul willing to offer you the deep dark truth you’ve always been after, but actually as a means to a much more selfish end. King Louie is the power-craving despot who is already surrounded by scores of admirers. He too offers reward as quid pro quo, though his are of the more monetary variety. Still – for those like Louie, the art of the deal is always in their favour. (Louie, it should be noted, is Walt Disney’s addition to the narrative). And finally we need to consider Shere Khan and his vicious talent for turning a community against itself. Not only is he a force to be feared by his very nature, but even more so when one considers his talent for manipulation.
If a story’s greatness is measured by the realization of its villain(s), then THE JUNGLE BOOK is on a level higher than most. None of its foils are concerned with storming the jungle and taking over. Instead, they are all quite content to sit back and let the jungle come to them. At that point, they will use every weapon in their arsenal to lay waste to any poor unfortunate soul who is lulled by the offer of momentary reward. Sounds a lot like a lot of would-be leaders throughout history…and even currently on the world stage.
Time has been kind to Rudyard Kipling’s classic. Considering the state of the world today, it feels like we could all do with a refresher course on the story’s core themes of strength in numbers, and the dangers of quests for individual power. Sure, there’s no ecosystem in the world where all of these creatures would actually co-exist, but let’s leave that aside. THE JUNGLE BOOK has always been about a social hierarchy and the role we all play within it. Some of us are the loyal wolves, some of us are the lazy-but-good-natured bears, and some of us are even the dangerously obtuse man. The point is that we all have it within us to bring great good or do great harm, and it’s important to remember that.
In short, we need to recognize when we can be the bear who can hoist the small boy on its back…and when we are that small boy inviting great dangers into the larger community.