Movie review: “The Jungle Book”

“The Wolves are a free people,” said Father Wolf. “They take orders from the Head of the Pack, and not from any striped cattle-killer. The man’s cub is ours—to kill if we choose.”
“Ye choose and ye do not choose! What talk is this of choosing? By the bull that I killed, am I to stand nosing into your dog’s den for my fair dues? It is I, Shere Khan, who speak!”
The tiger’s roar filled the cave with thunder. Mother Wolf shook herself clear of the cubs and sprang forward, her eyes, like two green moons in the darkness, facing the blazing eyes of Shere Khan.
“And it is I, Raksha [The Demon], who answers. […]”

Yeah. Let that wash around in your brain-pan for a bit. Listen to the music of that, the gorgeous rhythym. Notice all the beautifully paired sounds, the internal clickity-clack rhythym of “cattle-killer” and “clear of the cubs” coaxing you to recite, rather than read. Go ahead, speak Mother Wolf’s line out loud and see if your spine doesn’t straighten out. The Demon. What a nickname for a mother to have.

This passage, taken from the opening of the first Jungle Book, is a perfect example of Rudyard Kipling’s heavyweight power, his astoundingly distinctive voice, his ability to summon a musical thunderstorm. That ability is precisely why he’s such a problem. Kipling was a racist and a colonialist and wrote, prolifically, in support of both systems. He can’t be separated from his era because he helped shape it: it was precisely his extraordinary skill that made “The White Man’s Burden” such a handy conceptual excuse for all the many personifications of scum who ruthlessly thieved, raped and murdered their way across the rest of the earth. When you create peerless art in defense of the indefensible, what should your legacy be?

Enter Walt Disney. Never one to pass up the chance to make racism kid-friendly, Uncle Walt gave us an animated “Jungle Book” that on surface inspection seems more innocent than Kipling’s text (there is no discussion, for example, of the rules governing carcass ownership), but in reality is almost infinitely nastier, a fact never clearer than during the musical number “I Wan’na Be Like You”, which is a song sung to a boy by an anthropomorphized ape named King Louie, a literal pretender to the throne of manhood. It is a wincingly painful scene, not least because the story provides camouflage that the more overt “Song of the South” did not: you will still find people today who claim not to understand the problem with the 1967 “The Jungle Book”. I’m surprised that Jon Favreau is among them, but here comes “The Jungle Book” again, freshly decked out in gorgeous CGI and featuring a star-studded cast of voice actors: Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Scarlett Johnanson as Kaa, Bill Murray as Baloo—and Christopher Walken as King Louie. The character is still here, hardly a jot changed: the song is the same, the joke still “Look. He thinks he’s people.” Why would Disney double down on this old, bad joke? Do they really think our cultural amnesia is so strong that we won’t remember any of the racial underpinnings that made this scene unacceptable in 1967?

Here’s the problem: they’re right. This movie has a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes right now, and while there are some honorable exceptions and notice-takers (Anthony Lane over at The New Yorker among them), most critics don’t seem to have a problem with this scene, focusing their few critical jabs instead at Neel Sethi’s unmemorable performance as Mowgli (fair) and the strange hollowness at the movie’s core, a hollowness most of them are pinning on the CGI used to create every detail of the world, from the mudslides to the leaves to the animals. But the problem isn’t the CGI, it’s the story: by shifting the emotional center away from Mowgli and onto the adult animals who raise him, the writers have robbed the character of agency and the audience of reasons to care about him. This Mowgli is cute, but he’s constantly passing out, being knocked or hypnotized unconscious, falling asleep and waking up elsewhere as the stronger animal characters quarrel over how he should be dealt with. Ironically, a closer adherence to Kipling would have actually helped with this problem—in the books, Mowgli is a moody and reactive teen, whose pride goads him to reject his wolf pack, even as leaving home breaks his heart. The moment when he seizes “man’s red flower” (fire) and beats his old family into cowering, doglike submission is an unparalleled moment in literature: it shows that for all Kipling’s willful blindness when it came to who was and wasn’t human, he still understood what it was to be human, and had a much firmer grasp on the intense sorrows and passions of that experience than anyone working on this film, most especially the cynical bean-counters who looked at a choice between a story about growing up, and a minor Disney trifle from the worst era of Disney, and chose wrong. Look at these sad, blinkered, corporate fucks, carefully calibrating just how racist they can be in 2016 without cutting into their profit margins. They think they’re people.

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