The Movie Scab: Disney The Jungle Book
"The scab you're picking at is called execution."
--American film producer Scott Rudin.
Disney The Jungle Book: Ack! Ack! Ack! A…!
Monkey Boy loves movies about jungles. It reminds him of the simple life before he became a well-respected, famous movie critic. Kind of like Mowgli, the feral kid in Disney The Jungle Book, he wandered into human villages and went to the movies all the time, then scampered back to the jungle and lived the free and easy Monkey Boy life. He’d hang out with his animal friends and sing songs just like Mowlgi the feral kid, Baloo the bear, and Bagheera the black panther, sharing raw meat from recent kills, licking honey from dangerous active beehives, squatting in the jungle to take a crap like all the other animals, hardly ever washing and never—not once—brushing his teeth. Good times. After seeing a movie, Monkey Boy often hung out in a pub (just like me), discussing a movie’s merit with anyone willing to sit with him and talk about it. That’s how Monkey Boy and I met, as a matter of fact, deep in the heart of Kampung Monyet, the “masked monkey slum of Jakarta.” The locals train macaque monkeys to walk like humans and wear children’s clothes and masks made out of creepy doll heads that have had their eyes removed. Tourists find this entertaining and perhaps frightening enough to never, ever return to the Kampung Monyet slum. I was no different, but before I got the hell out of there, I saw a grubby old movie theatre and couldn’t resist the temptation to see a movie. As it turned out, the movie was so bad I needed to find a pub but fast. I sat at the bar and the person next to me was Monkey Boy. We’d both seen the same terrible movie and needed a serious amount of alcohol to make us forget all about it. The rest, as they say, is movie critic history.
These days, of course, Monkey Boy feels the pressure of success. Life is not so simple anymore. Like Hillary Clinton, he’s got appointments to meet, calls to take, emails to delete, speeches to give, and someone has to delouse him every day. (Not me. Monkey Boy and I may be movie lovers, but I leave the delousing to professionals.) So it’s no wonder Disney The Jungle Book tugged at his Monkey Boy heart.
That said, we both agree that 2016 is off to a pretty good start movie-wise. February and March gave us Deadpool, The Witch and Risen and now we have Disney The Jungle Book—not bad because these movies earned three Acks! and a partial A…! That's something quite extraordinary—Monkey Boy does not give his Acks! away easily. A movie really, really has to earn them. (All those years living in the masked monkey slum of Jakarta taught Monkey Boy the meaning of effort and execution.)
As to Disney The Jungle Book, Monkey Boy and I don’t have much to complain about. Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Elf, Chef) figured out how to honor Walt Disney (cartoon scenes turned into live action, shot-for-shot, and a couple of songs from the original), move further away from Rudyard Kipling’s story (even more than the 1967 cartoon), while updating the tale so that it pleases a modern audience (dark and brutal, baby).
That’s quite a tricky dance, balancing all three, and Favreau pulled it off. The movie is entertaining, fun, thrilling, and the CGI is beautiful to behold. Even better, the photo-realistic CGI animals chitty-chatting with Mowgli isn't as distracting as you might imagine. I think the reason it works is because the animals themselves aren't distracting. They're not silly cartoon caricatures. They look like the real deal and so it works. And the two songs from the cartoon they choose to do are done in a way that makes sense, more believable, less Las Vegas show tune, and shorter too--definitely the right choice.
Screenwriter Justin Marks (Disney The Jungle Book, Disney The Jungle Book 2, Disney The Jungle Book 3 and you get the idea), following Favreau’s lead, I have to imagine, penned a respectable script that even further changes the story by providing realistic animal cruelty, the kind you’d see in a National Geographic animal documentary--the Nat Geo narrator whispers, "It's a fierce life and death duel in the hot Indian jungle between man cub and Bengal tiger..."--and a new ending that, when compared to the cartoon and the original story, means something completely different. Very modern, let’s say. It doesn’t go full bore PC like the craptastic preachy epic movie disaster Tomorrowland (2015), and that’s, well, whatever. Look, it’s a movie about a feral kid who talks and sings with animals. Don’t get me wrong. I like movies with feral kids in them. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) had a feral kid in it and I love that movie. The feral kid didn’t sing like Mowgli, though. He threw a sharpened boomerang that cut off fingers.
For those fan boys and girls of the original cartoon who might despair over the changed ending, let me comfort you by saying that Monkey Boy and I did not need to seek out a Safe Space or therapy afterwards. We thought the new ending was OK—a little sudden maybe, a little unfinished, but acceptable. The truth is, we didn’t even miss the old ending. It took my movie-addicted nephew (it runs in the family) to remind us that back in 1967 a sexy cartoon girl hypnotizes Mowgli out of the jungle with her seductive swaying hips and song. In other words, Mowgli abandoned the jungle and all his wonderful animal friends forever for one thing: the promise of boink boink. Yep, that’s how the old one ends.
It’s also true that one of the main reasons Favreau and Company changed the ending is so that Disney can pump out sequels for its latest movie franchise faster than two rabbits boinking. (See screenwriter Justin Marks future screenwriting history.) And since Disney The Jungle Book is considered a success (so far, it’s pulled in about $700 million worldwide), sequels are all but guaranteed.
The actors do a fine job: Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Bill Murray as Baloo, Idris Elba as Shere Khan and the good news is the feral kid, Neel Sethi, doesn’t irritate you so much that you want Kaa the python to squeeze him until his head pops off—but it was close, especially in the first act when he comes across as a smug, smart-ass feral kid who might deserve to die. Thankfully, the cocky attitude doesn’t last long and you actually start to like the kid, at least enough to get through the movie.
Monkey Boy and I agree that Idris Elba as Shere Khan deserves an extra special actor nod. George Sanders voiced the character back in 1967 and as far as wicked cartoon tigers go, he set the bar high, turning that smooth English accent of his into an evil that purred. It sounded so menacing, kids were scarred for life (in a good way). Amazingly, Idris Elba takes it up a notch, which is a huge acting feat. Like Mowgli bowed to the elephants out of respect, Monkey Boy and I bow to Idris Elba.
And we also have to acknowledge the brilliance of Christopher Walken as the monster-sized orangutan King Louie. The intro to the character made Monkey Boy and I laugh out loud. I mean, a full-throated roar and monkey bark. Christopher Walken does a mean Marlon Brando and Favreau sets it up so that we could be watching the final act in Apocalypse Now, Brando sitting in darkness and mumbling as he massages that crazy bald head of his, just replace Brando with a monster-sized talking orangutan. It's a great movie moment for rabid movie fans like us, close to real genius and worth the price of admission right there.
So. What is this movie? You can’t exactly call it a remake, even though it is clearly a remake of the 1967 cartoon. It’s not a faithful retelling of the Kipling tale either. And it’s got enough original stuff in it so that, I guess, you could call it a reboot. It doesn’t really matter what you call it, though, because kids and adults will be entertained. Monkey Boy and I were.
Which leads me to the real star of the movie. The CGI. The technology has reached the point where it's impossible to tell the difference between what's real and unreal anymore. But for the one real human being in the movie (Mowgli/Neel Sethi) and a fake tree limb here and a swimming pool there, every single thing you see is CGI. Every single thing. And it is, as I said before, beautiful to behold.
My rating: Go to the Long Bar at Raffles in Singapore and order a Button Punch (Pisco brandy, lemon juice and pineapple cubes steeped in sugar syrup overnight). Then order three more and sip them back to back while you find directions to the movie theatre in Kampung Monyet, the “masked monkey slum of Jakarta.” By the second drink, you will find that it has made you believe a Button Punch is, to quote Rudyard Kipling, "...compounded of cherub's wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset, and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters." Before stepping out of the bar and going to the movie, do a little Karaoke and get the entire bar to sing a rendition of The Bear Necessities while you consume one Bear Necessity (4 oz. vodka, mango juice, pineapple juice, limeade, mango slices, pineapple chunks, banana slices, maraschino cherries and coconut meat). Call a hand-drawn rickshaw taxi to leg it to the movie theatre in the masked monkey slum, stagger to the ticket booth, lay your money down, sit back and enjoy Disney The Jungle Book with your kids--if you have them and even if you don't.