Wat je van beren leren kan
Disney has always had a keen sense of how to exploit their legacy. No other company was better at creating a sense of urgency and scarcity surrounding their releases. I remember in the nineties how every one of their VHS tapes was accompanied by a ‘for the first time ever’ seal of quality. It made them desirable. Perhaps enough years have passed now for the kids from that time to be today’s creators, and usher in a new era: one where Disney’s animated classics are remade into live action films filled with digital wonders. With a bit of fudging you could count Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014) as the first, remaking Sleeping Beauty (Clyde Geromini, 1959), but for all intents and purposes, The Jungle Book is the herald of things to come.
And if that is true, I see a bump in the road.
Not that this isn’t a beautifully made film. Visually, I mean. It’s gorgeous. The jungle breathes heavy with detail and life. Here’s Mowgli in his red loin cloth, cavorting through the forest with abandon. The talking animals are all quite believable, even though I got weirded out by the dissonance of having these truthfully rendered bears and panthers lip-syncing human speech. (And I will not talk of the odd sensation of seeing a giant ape with Christopher Walken’s facial features. Oh!) This is not a film that reeks of green screen at any turn, which says volumes about the state of current graphics and its accomplished cinematography.
And even as an action story about a young boy in the jungle who is hunted by a tiger and struggles to find his home, the movie functions nicely. But in the final moments, I was saddened to see how The Jungle Book manages to miss the point of the original adaptation. Disney’s 1967’s The Jungle Book is a film with a light touch. Mowgli was a child left in the forest and raised by wolves, then cast out of the pack to find his own kind. Not out of any malice, but simply because a dangerous tiger returned and made things too dangerous for him. A journey began where the boy, under the auspices of Bagheera the panther, fought a snake, met up with a bear, was accosted by a monkey tribe, befriended a trio of vultures and eventually fought the tiger. And, crucially, joined the human village he set out for.
From the outset, the remake burdens all of this with backstory. It isn’t enough that Shere Khan is a murderous tiger with an innate hatred of mankind, he has to be fire-scarred by Mowgli’s father. And somehow Kaa the snake knows this, because he isn’t here to eat as much as deliver exposition. Suddenly, the story isn’t about Mowgli growing up anymore, it’s about rescuing the wolves from Shere Khan in a forest filled with rules and relationships. This is all noise, noise, noise grafted on, detracting from what was once a charming coming-of-age story. Those animals Mowgli encountered in the old film? They were symbols. The whole thing was a metaphor for becoming an adult. Freeing himself from the rigid hierarchy of the wolves, the boy first faces the treacherous hunger of the jungle in the form of a snake. Then he discovers the good, easy life with Baloo, who teaches him hedonism and to turn a blind eye to his responsibilities. That can’t possibly hold, because life always intervenes. King Louie of the apes shows Mowgli the dark, dangerous side of mankind. We intuit the immediate threat of allowing Louie to become human by controlling fire. Then, in his darkest hour, he meets the vultures, nihilistic creatures who don’t believe in anything. With them Mowgli flees into apathy and sarcasm, until he is forced to rise up against Shere Khan against his will. The boy has to become a man.
Contrast this to the new version, where Mowgli’s whole journey is distilled into a shallow cry at his nemesis: ‘I’m not afraid of you!’. But he ought to be. Shere Khan is the jungle’s uncaring deadliness, something you should never stop fearing. In the rewritten ending we see Mowgli lounging on a tree branch with his friends, back with the wolves. Did no one understand that in order for The Jungle Book to work as a story about growing up, Mowgli has to leave the jungle? Has to leave his friends behind and be beckoned by, and this is important, the lure of a young female collecting water? The final awakening is his sexuality, and with that he truly becomes human. How wonderful and grown-up was the animated film in showing this. And how vaguely hollow the remake in comparison, despite its nuts and bolts being very well-produced.
That’s the danger of cannibalizing your legacy, you run the risk of not fully understanding what earlier generations made.