Heidi and I recently saw the new Jungle Book film. I may be a CNC Machinist by day, but I’m still an animator by night, and a Kipling fan, and an amateur Disney historian, so I was very eager to watch this retelling of the classic story, even if only to see the animation and other technical details. And what details!
First and foremost, the new movie is a visual masterpiece. The design, animation, lighting, and rendering are just plain incredible. It should be noted that almost everything in this movie that is not Mowgli is completely computer generated. All the backgrounds, nearly all of the plants, and every single animal. Ironically, while this film is one of Disney’s many “live-action” retellings of their animated classic films, this one actually has more animation in it than the original.
The animators at MPC and Weta Digital should be credited with two amazing feats: creating believable wild animals, and making those wild animals into believable emotive actors. The engineers also deserve credit, because after the animators created the skeletal animation, every animal got a soft-body muscle stimulation on top of the bones, a cloth-based skin simulation on top of the muscles, and finally a dynamic fur and hair simulation on top of the skin. Every bit of water the animals touch and every bit of foliage they brush against is also simulated. Everything in the film feels real.
This realism is also substantially enhanced by highly detailed 3D scans of rocks, trees, and leaves from all over India. Engineers also created clever algorithms for automatically distributing sticks, dirt, and leaf litter around their sculpted jungle sets. The film is a technical marvel, but there’s more to good filmmaking than just technological excellence. Artistry is required.
An incredible amount of time and effort has been put into the lighting, which depicts all different times of day, all types of environments, and all types of weather. This is even more impressive given that lighting had to be physically set up for Mowgli’s shoot on the blue screen stage, and then virtually matched for the 3D animated backgrounds generated around him. This lighting not only matches, and not only seems realistic, but is beautiful and communicates the emotions of the scene very powerfully.
But of course, even technical and visual artistry together are not enough to make a good film. How well do those scenes work together? How is the story that drives them? Are the characters believable as characters, even if they look real? There are too many similarities between this Jungle Book and the 1967 animated movie not to compare them as we try to answer these questions.
Like the 2016 movie, the 1967 film has some truly exceptional character animation. At this point in history, the best Disney animators were at the peak of their powers. They had decades of experience and discovery behind them, but weren’t yet fading. Unfortunately, Walt Disney Studios itself wasn’t doing too well. It was still reeling from WWII, economic turmoil, and strikes and unionization, which had cost it personnel, finances, and morale.
Worse, Walt Disney died in 1966, leaving a fragmented, directionless Studio and a rather disjointed Jungle Book mid-production. The finished film is a strange mix: brilliant character design and animation let down by immature cost-cutting technology, rich elements of Kipling’s original 1890s book clashing with cheap 1960s dialog, and great Sherman Brothers songs and a wonderful George Bruns score hampered by popular music trends that were shoehorned in.
In a way, the Disney Studio kept making movies in this fractured Jungle Book mold for years after Walt’s death. In addition to directly copying its characters and animation for Robin Hood, Disney’s later films keep this awkward blend of classic fairytale storytelling and desperate attempts at modern relevance and relativism, despite the increasingly jarring results.
The jazzy beatnik hepcats in Aristocats didn’t work any better than Jungle Book’s bizarre almost-cameo of The Beatles, and the attempts to cash in on trends like 1970s sword-and-sorcery epics and 1980s pop-rock fads created box office flops and critical failures like The Black Cauldron and Olivier & Company.
Fortunately, this newer Jungle Book avoids most of those traps and sticks to a leaner, cleaner, deeper story. It has retained most of the best elements of the original and ditched most of the weaker parts. By doing so, director Jon Favreau has been able to bring back some of the better elements of Kipling’s book as well. For example, in this film, the man-cub isn’t just visually different from the other animals because he’s a hairless biped; he’s a thinking, planning, tool-making human, someone intrinsically different. This is only touched on, but it adds depth to his relationships.
Because of this added depth, he also gets more personality, and, in my opinion, a better connection to the audience. There’s also more backstory with Shere Khan, who, we learn, is the reason that Mowgli is an orphan lost in the jungle. The tiger’s character is also expanded, from mere physical threat to a cunning and devious villain who tries to turn the wolf pack against Mowgli by corrupting the pups.
Baloo is still a shiftless, stupid jungle bum, but he gets a much better character arc and experiences more character growth. The one odd note is King Louie, who goes from being a goofy, scatting orangutan to a monstrous Gigantopithecus warlord straight out of Apocalypse Now. He’s half King Kong, half Godfather, and yet he still sings “I wanna be like you” like an impersonator in some weird SNL sketch.
But apart from that strange interlude, the storytelling works without a hitch. There’s more involvement from the wolf pack and their Law, more complexity to the interactions of the Jungle people, and more genuine friendship between the main characters. Considering that first-time actor Neel Sethi was generally working alone on a big blue set, it’s amazing that his chemistry with these fake animals feels so real.
Which brings me to a point of caution. While this movie is free of profanity, and even 1967 Mowgli’s bad attitude is mostly gone, there are some things that will need explaining to children. Talking animal films can be confusing for young viewers, since the filmmakers always end up imbuing those animals with, well, humanity.
Also, talking animals are more complicated when man comes to the forest. It’s doesn’t seem like the Jungle Book is simply the interactions of fanciful, anthropomorphized animals, not when actual human people are around. And these movie animals, despite having human emotions, human mannerisms, and human voices, are still believable as animals, as believable as real animals in any BBC documentary. Parents will need to carefully explain that these animals aren’t real, and that God has made animals and people different in ways that are important to understand.
Rudyard Kipling’s actually book draws a much, much wider chasm between man and beast than Disney does, to the point that Mowgli must leave the jungle not because of predators, but because even his closest animal friends are deeply inferior to humans, and can no longer see him as an equal. Unfortunately, it is difficult for him to live in the man village when the superstitious humans find it impossible to trust someone who has grown up in the jungle. In the end, it’s a much sadder, more complicated story than the Disney version, and some version of this Mowgli-the-outcast plot will probably show up in the motion-captured 2018 Warner Brothers film directed by Andy Serkis.
That movie was scheduled to come out this year, but was pushed back since the box office probably couldn’t support two CGI Jungle Book movies at the same time. It could have come out late next year, but Disney is expected to rule the 2017 box office with Star Wars: Episode 8, and so it will be released in December of 2018. It will probably be remembered as a darker, grittier, less successful version of something that Disney made two years earlier, just like all of Warner Brother’s recent films.
It is interesting that Jon Favreau, the man who essentially jump-started the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man in 2008, has created another hugely successful film out of another dusty old Disney franchise. If he hurries, he should be able to get Disney’s Jungle Book 2 to theaters in the next two years. Heidi and I will watch it, but until he has a proper understanding of animals in God’s created order, James won’t. Right now, he’s still just trying learn all the noises.