May 17, 2016
Family Film Blogging: Disney's The Jungle Book
Posted by Christine Hurt

I know, I know, I'm behind.  That's what happens when you become the Associate Dean for Faculty and Curriculum.  But, I have been to the movies a couple of times, including to see Disney's The Jungle Book.  (Not to be confused with the Warner Bros. version, which is also in production.)  Funnily enough, though we were all eagerly anticipating this movie after seeing the trailer, the old folks loved it, but our eight year-old (target audience?) did not.  Why not?  This is our hypothesis:

So, the movie has one speaking actor that is not animated.  Mowgli, played by Neel Sethi) interacts with a jungle filled with animated mammals, reptiles and birds.  Those animals are voiced by great actors, though some animals oddly don't seem to have language abilities.  The result is really quite impressive, and I'm sure if you had a time machine and showed the movie to folks in the 1980s, they would wonder at how the director was able to train the real-live animals to do all of these things.  The movie is also very impressive when you realize that a little boy had to basically film an entire movie by himself with Iron-Man director and actor Jon Favreau.  The scene-stealers are Bill Murray voicing an animated Baloo (the bear) and Christopher Walken as King Louie (the orangutan).  Watch closely for the "cowbell" reference -- I was embarrassed that my fourteen year-old got it before I did.  

So, why did the only real "kid" in our midst not like the movie?  My teenage girl's hypothesis is "the uncanny valley."  According to this aesthetic theory, humans find animation that is very close to real to be "creepy," while animation that is cartoon-y (like Frozen, etc.) to be just fine.  Apparently, this theory explains audience revulsion to animated movies such as Christmas CarolPolar Express, and Mars Needs Moms.  These are all movies that my kids hate, btw.  So, the "almost real" animals may be too creepy -- not cute, not real, just creepy.  However, none of the over-12 set that went with us had this reaction.

You probably know at least the set-up:  Man-cub Mowgli is somehow separated from the humans and is raised in a wolf pack.  In the 1967 version, the takeaway seemed to be that the jungle was no place for Mowgli, and he is eventually reunited with the humans (after a lot of fun singing and dancing).  In this version, the takeaway seems to be more that humans and animals have a symbiotic relationship and can help one another thrive.  The movie opens with a "water truce," in which animals during a drought tacitly agree not to prey upon one another at the lone remaining water hole.  Perhaps the message is that here in these days on Earth, we should all live in peace with one another, or maybe that's reading a bit too much into it.  While the animated movie was a funny road trip movie -- Bagheera escorting Mowgli to the Man-village, and along the way they meet friends and enemies, quarrel with one another, then reunite at the end -- the new movie has more of an internal journey than an external one.  Shere-Khan, the tiger, sets his sights on Mowgli, but the vindictiveness is personal and acute, not just "tiger eats human."  Shere-Khan is also a little more brutal than as a cartoon.  Baloo is the buddy Mowgli meets, but he is also the voice of wisdom beyond his "bare necessities" persona.  Mowgli learns not just that the jungle has dangers, but also that he has skills and abilities.  The movie is much more a coming-of-age story than a road trip story.

I heartily recommend it, notwithstanding one young critic's review.

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