Towards the end of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, the film’s protagonist, Pi, recounts his last meeting with Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger that spent nearly eight months with him on a lifeboat. As Richard Parker slowly walks towards the woods, Pi, having formed an unlikely bond with him, hopes that he will look back, acknowledging the relationship they shared amidst the life-threatening adversity. Pi’s wish is rather romantic, for Richard Parker is, after all, a tiger – an animal that devours life forms. How can he suddenly become something he is not, something he has never been? Richard Parker, quite expectedly, doesn’t turn back and Pi is left heartbroken. It’s a sly, anticlimactic moment in the film, which hints towards darker truths in Pi’s apocryphal story. Pi then tells another story of his survival, where the tiger is simply a bloodthirsty animal, as opposed to being a compassionate companion Pi would have wanted, even imagined, it to be.
The emotional core of Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book sits in between those two stories of Pi. One part of Favreau’s movie, much in line with Pi’s first story, presents animals as anthropomorphic characters, capable of empathy, compassion and love, in a manner understood by human beings. Heck, they even crack jokes like us. It’s this aspect of The Jungle Bookthat a majority of moviegoers are familiar with — be it Wolfgang Reitherman’s 1967 animated movie, which started Disney’s franchise of Rudyard Kipling’s book, or the Japanese animated adaptation that aired on Doordarshan in the summer of 1993. In these versions, suitable for kids of all ages, the world of the jungle was largely harmless, its inhabitants endearing. Even the story’s antagonist, the ferocious Shere Khan, was dangerous only in theory — a character that signified threat, did not exude it. Even Ka, the crafty snake, for that matter, didn’t really mean harm.
But this 2016 version is a different beast. To begin with, let’s consider its opening sequence. Here, Mowgli is sprinting and leaping through branches of trees, trying to avoid a source of danger that is not yet visible to us. It’s a breathless segment in the film, materialised through nimble cameras and quick cuts, evoking a sense of genuine fear, showing what it means to be a boy in a jungle — a place that may signify home but still remains unfamiliar. And even the subsequent scenes — Shere Khan running after Mowgli; Ka coiling around Mowgli’s slight frame with her long, slimy skin and opening her mouth to swallow him; King Louie trying to crush him with its paw — show an untrammelled side of the jungle that threatens to devour this boy. It’s a terrifying thought, one that is at the very core of Kipling’s book, and it is impressive how Favreau doesn’t hold back, doesn’t make the unpleasant pleasant. As if these portions seem to say, “If you don’t understand the unfamiliar, then you stand the risk of being destroyed. Sounds tough and terrible? Maybe, but it is what it is.” And given that Favreau’s movie, as opposed to most adaptations of the book, is live-action and in 3-D, the sense of fear in this world doesn’t seem mitigated, but is more pronounced.
It is perhaps also the reason why the movie is rated U/A in India and PG (parental guidance) in the US. Pahlaj Nihalani, the current chief of India’s Central Board of Film Certification, spoke about this decision: “The 3-D effects are so scary that the animals seem to jump right at the audience. It’s not just the story that determines certification. It’s the overall presentation, the packaging and, most important of all, the visual affects used to tell the story.”
Now, we all know that the censor board under Nihalani has been quite regressive (and, in fact, has been responsible for some really bizarre cuts in movies over the last year). It also doesn’t help that Nihalani’s views on censorship, evident in a few interviews he’s given to tabloids and websites, are quite troubling. So, as one would expect, his comments on the film’s U/A rating faced severe backlash on Twitter. But, look more closely, and its easy to see that this was less about the decision and more about the man. Because a majority of the people complaining about The Jungle Book’s rating hadn’t even seen the film. The other troubling factor? Their ridicule was presumably based on the tone and content of the book’s previous film adaptations, thereby completely divorcing context from the conversation or, as it were, carefully composed acerbic one-liners, targeting a low-hanging fruit, to garner maximum re-tweets.
Favreau’s version is indeed a significant departure from the previous adaptations. Nihalani’s comment of “animals seem to jump right at the audience” is perfectly in line with his persona, someone who’s high on correctness, low on nuance, but if you understand the essence of his entire statement, he is, for a change, right. The U/A rating (which doesn’t keep the younger audiences, kids less than 12-years-old, away from theatres, by the way; it just tells them to be accompanied by adults) is justified for this film, because Favreau hasn’t smoothened over the unpleasant edges of his movie. This film is primarily centered on fear — both physical and psychological — and it is, in portions, unsettling. I can imagine Favreau’s film can be an uncomfortable viewing experience for a bunch of unsupervised 10-year-olds who are still negotiating the various definitions of fear.
Favreau owns this movie quite early, but he’s also battling something significant – finding something new in a story that’s been told, interpreted, retold and reinterpreted a number of times. He is expected to play to the gallery at times, because the characters remain the same: stern but caring Bagheera, motherly and protective Raksha, friendly and funny Baloo, stubborn and savage Shere Khan, endearing and resourceful Mowgli. Ditto the plot points: Bagheera escorting Mowgli out of the jungle, he befriending Baloo and, ultimately, confronting Shere Khan.
But despite the limitations Favreau is saddled with, he tries. He, for instance, touches upon the notion of identity. “Be like a wolf,” Bagheera tells Mowgli in the film’s first sequence. We understand it as, “be someone you are not”. But who is Mowgli really? Is he a pup or a “man cub”? Can nurture trump nature? Can you be trained to become someone you are not? Later, during the film’s middle portion, when a settlement of humans — Mowgli’s original home — is visible to him, he looks at them intently. People have collected around an open fire — or the “red flower” as it’s called in the jungle, Mowgli’s adoptive home — to celebrate a night with alcohol-fuelled talks. Mowgli doesn’t quite understand this revelry. In the film’s final segment, Mowgli tells Bagheera, who insists he leaves the jungle or he will be killed by Shere Khan, “I want to be like you. I want to talk like you.” And Bagheera finally urges Mowgli to attack his nemesis with, “Defeat Shere Khan not like a wolf, but like a man.” These asides infuse much vitality, and an added dimension, to a familiar story.
Having said that, Favreau also often gets defeated by that familiarity. The film feels flat for a considerable period, especially in bits involving Mowgli and Baloo, where Favreau seems compelled to be funny (following the narrative path adopted by previous adaptations), and as a result, we get one-liners, not very clever or funny, weighing the film down. Favreau also does not play around enough with the existing material; to his credit, though, he does exercise a few visual and thematic options, and while the former feels satisfactory, complete and novel unto itself, the latter does not. ThisJungle Book, much like Mowgli’s basic conundrum, is stranded between two different worlds, old and new, familiar and unfamiliar. Unlike its central character, it shouldn’t have been hesitant to venture into the unknown.
The review was first published in the Wire.