The Jungle Book *****
Directed by Jon Favreau; screenplay by Justin Marks
Starring Neel Sethi and the voices of Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’O, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito
105’; USA 2016.
Mowgli is a boy raised in the jungle by a pack of wolves. Bagheera, the panther, found him when he was a little more than a baby: his father had been killed by the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (who in return got wounded in the clash) and today, about 10 years old, Mowgli feels like a wolf in every way. When the tiger finds out that the cub of the man who hurt him is still alive, his only goal becomes to destroy him. Bagheera then volunteers to accompany the man cub to the human village: that will be the start of an adventure for the safety of Mowgli.
After the animated masterpiece of 1967, a new piece of film history and CGI animation has been made. The Jungle Book is a perfect combination of an adventure movie and the beloved Disney cartoon, from which the whole repertoire of songs is drawn, perfectly integrated with the beautiful soundtrack. This version of Kipling’s story draws from ancient imagery, renewing itself and appealing even to adults.
It is a movie full of surprises, from marvelous action scenes and stunning (recreated) places, to exciting moments of adventure and action. And — since Neel Sethi, the 12-year-old protagonist, is the only real person among the characters — a child-actor capable of carrying the whole thing.
The writing gives new life to the characters — including the hilarious Baloo and the prudent Bagheera, both with their own growth arc — and switches between funny moments and really adventurous or even scary ones (maybe even too much for the younger viewers?).
Director and screenwriter together have managed to create a film that ideally represents the story of the earlier film, but with peculiarities all of its own. Not least of these is the ending, which not only hints at a sequel but also reinterprets the theme. While in the original Disney film Mowgli found his place in the world by going into the human village, today he is accepted for exactly what he is and thus is able to live with himself and the others in the jungle.
The issue of diversity and integration, which is so current, is taken in this film to the point of being against the current. Mowgli is a reject, a child from another species who has to find its own place in the world, and who seeks to integrate initially by denying that part of himself that is most deeply characteristic. He then takes advantage of his capabilities for less than noble purposes (Baloo realizes that Mowgli is the only one capable of doing things that no other animal can), but finally understands, with the help of Bagheera who has accepted him first, that the good he can do and his own salvation lie in embracing his true self. Only by accepting himself he will be accepted and finally fit in, because true integration does not seek uniformity, but arises from the recognition of the diversity of others and sees difference as a source of communal wealth.
Moreover, in recognizing his own human nature and by fighting Shere Khan as a human, Mowgli also assumes the responsibilities that this entails: as a man he can and should “bring all the jungle together”, taking on the task of its defense, and becoming in some way its caretaker.
Through all its complexity, the movie shows us a triumph of nature, in the varied natures of the creatures who inhabit it and in the recognition of a common history (represented here by the story of the elephants) — the mythological element that no great story ever lacks.
Problematic element: some of the more intense scene could frighten the younger audience.