Disney’s live-action / cgi adaptation of its own animated classic, The Jungle Book, is similar in tone to its live-action / cgi adaptation of Cinderella. It was earnest and straightforward, and the technology that brought all those talking animals and jungle landscapes to life was amazing.
The theme seemed to me to be extremely American, or at least Western, in its individualism.
SPOILERS below, including a detailed plot summary in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
My Beat Sheet for The Jungle Book
Mowgli is running through the jungle with the wolf pack. Bagheera the panther scolds Mowgli for climbing into the trees during the chase because wolves can’t climb. Ergo, Mowgli is a bad wolf and needs to try harder to fit in. Mowgli says his tree strategy would have worked if the branch of the tree he climbed hadn’t broken.
Set-up / Catalyst
There’s a drought. At the watering hole during the water truce, the tiger Shere Kahn discovers that the wolves are sheltering a man cub. Shere Kahn demands that Mowgli be given to him, and predicts that the man cub will become a man and betray his animal friends and the law of the jungle.
Theme / Debate
Bagheera tells Mowgli that everyone needs a people. Mowgli wants to stay with the wolves, but then decides that he is endangering them if he stays. He goes with Bagheera, who wants to return him to the man village, but since he does not want to leave the jungle, he suggests other animal peoples with whom he could try to belong.
Break into Two
Shere Kahn attacks Bagheera and Mowgli escapes into a ravine during a stampede. Mowgli now believes the only safe place for him is in the man village.
B Story / Promise of the Premise
From Kaa the snake, Mowgli learns how his father burned Shere Kahn with man’s red flower and died, leaving him to be discovered by Bagheera. Baloo rescues Mowgli from Kaa and in exchange demands that Mowgli get him some honeycombs. Mowgli uses his human tricks to get honey for Baloo for “winter hibernation” and feels for the first time that he and his tricks are appreciated. Baloo, eager for as much honey as possible, convinces Mowgli not to continue on to the man village.
Meanwhile, Shere Kahn, having killed the leader of the wolf pack for refusing to hand over Mowgli, tries to teach the wolf cubs that Mowgli is like the cuckoo bird, stealing love and attention that should be theirs.
Bagheera finds Mowgli and insists that Baloo is a con and Mowgli should go to the man village. Mowgli uses human tricks to rescue a baby elephant from a pit, thus earning the gratitude of the highly respected elephant clan.
Baloo, at the urging of Bagheera, tells Mowgli that they aren’t friends and that he doesn’t want him around anymore.
Bad Guys Close In
Mowgli, distraught, gets kidnapped by monkeys. King Louie of the monkeys tells Mowgli that he must steal the red flower from the man village for him. If he does, he will live like royalty among the monkeys. If he doesn’t, King Louie will be very disappointed. Bagheera and Baloo arrive and distract and fight the monkeys so Mowgli can escape.
All is Lost / Dark Night of the Soul
Before he is buried by falling masonry, King Louie tells Mowgli that the leader of the wolf pack was killed by Shere Kahn.
Break into Three
Mowgli, neither man nor wolf nor puppet of the monkeys, steals a torch from the man village to threaten Shere Kahn and protect his friends.
The torch sets the jungle on fire and scares Mowgli’s friends, so he (perhaps stupidly) throws it into the river. His friends fight Shere Kahn (nobody dies) and he runs towards the fire. He lures Shere Kahn up the dead tree that he fell from before, but this time makes himself a swing from a vine and a stick and uses it to escape when a branch brakes and drops the tiger into the fire far below. Mowgli gets help from his elephant friends to build a dam that diverts the river towards the burning jungle and puts out the fire.
Mowgli is running with the wolf pack, but now he is accepted for what he is.
Other Thoughts on The Jungle Book
I was not surprised to see that the end credits featured a book, but I was surprised when the characters that crawled out of it wandered around in different sizes. That was a bit too weird, IMO.
Though the movie is not a musical, there are two or three musical numbers. I thought they were okay but not great—in other words, unnecessary.
It was strange hearing the voices of Bill Murray and Christopher Walken. Their animal characters might have seemed more fully realized if their voices hadn’t been those of recognizable celebrities. Or maybe any voice would have seemed to fall short, since perhaps I was simply listening for the voices from the 1967 cartoon.
It’s a stretch to call this a live-action movie, because apart from the voice cast, it has maybe three human actors in it (Mowgli, his father, and toddler Mowgli), plus some human-shaped shadows in the man village. I suppose some of the animals might have been filmed rather than created with computers, but I suspect that even the plants in this movie are mostly just pixels. (Wikipedia says all the filming was done on a sound stage and that animal puppets were used to aid the boy actor in the delivery of lines to otherwise invisible characters.)
That said, I’m awed that movies have reached the stage where believable talking animals are able to be created with computers. We’ve come a long way from the Narnia series I remember watching as a kid, and even from the cgi Narnia movies produced years later.
I was pleased with the way Mowgli was able to combine the various conflicting parts of his identity into something viable. The character chooses not to give up his wolf family and his animal friends, or his human heritage and skills. Mowgli is the epitome of a successful third-culture kid.
Oddly, the message seemed to be that you don’t need a people, that group identity is a threat to the self, that one is better off listening to one’s own heart for guidance than to any mentor, no matter how wise or sensible he may seem. Mowgli returns to the wolves, yes, but he does so stubbornly on his own terms.
As Pumbaa in The Lion King says, “Home is where your rump rests.”