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Does Disney’s new Jungle Book do Pompey’s Rudyard Kipling justice?

Disney’s 1960s adaptation of The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book is a classic of silliness with great tunes. It also has, apart from the title and the names of the characters, nothing to do with the pair of children’s books written by Rudyard Kipling in the 1890s. The books are far darker, deeper, truer and better in every way. So, what of the new 2016 version?

I admit I was late to Kipling. I only read The Jungle Books as an adult, having been steered away from them by the light and frothy cartoon. But, one day, having read that they were true classics, and considering Kipling’s Portsmouth pedigree, I thought I would check out the work of this locally grown boy.

Kipling’s life in Portsmouth was tough. Left in the town by his parents, who returned to India where they worked as civil servants, he found himself in the clutches of a psychotic nanny, Mrs Holloway, to whom he later referred in his autobiography Something of Myself as “The Woman”. Six years of hell ensued, as she terrorised him, punishing him for the tiniest, ordinary things kids do – even punishing him for “showing off” when it was discovered he needed to wear glasses. Justice for such transgressions took the form of beatings, and of being locked in the house alone while the household went on holidays, or prevented from reading, which he averred, made him seek to read all the more earnestly. It was bad. In fact, his life in Southsea led to a nervous breakdown at the age of 11.

Little wonder that many of the short stories in The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book tell the tale of a child, Mowgli, abandoned in a hostile jungle where he must learn The Law to survive. This is a direct reflection of his own experiences. No surprise, either, that Mowgli grows up determined to kill his tormentor, in this case, the lame tiger Shere Khan. In another story written after The Jungle Books, Kipling produced a fictionalised account of life in Southsea, Baa Baa Black Sheep. In this, the boy threatens to burn down the house of Aunt Rosa (this story’s verson of The Woman), to kill her and her son and wreak awful revenge on the boys who bully him at school at Rosa’s instigation.

Despite all this darkness in Kipling’s childhood and in the childhood of Mowgli, The Jungle Books are filled with wonders. The behaviour of the animals to each other and to Mowgli, of the man-cub’s learning to become socialised into the group and the adventures he has along the way are rich in poetic truths. From the specifics of an imagined boy’s life, one learns the way real human society works and how a child must learn to fit into his environment and still be himself. Thus, the learning of secret words which will make the animals help him (interestingly, Kipling also wrote about Freemasonry – another society using secret codes, in The Man Who Would Be King; the motif of secret communication returned again in Kim); or his kidnap by the Bandar Log monkey tribe, during which he discovers their utter fecklessness; or the wise guiding paw of the old bear, Baloo.

Striking is the choice of antiquated modes of speaking, which emphasise the formal and informal. Throughout the book, the animals refer to each other as “thou”. This convention, and the semi-mythical register they speak in makes the stories read almost like religious texts at times. They feel powerful in a way that most children’s books don’t – and truer because of it.

Of the final vengeance Mowgli wreaks on Shere Khan, the tiger’s brutal death and how Mowgli skins the body and brings the hide to The Council Rock where the wolves meet to discuss The Law of the Jungle, that section is truly horrific.

So, how does the new Disney live action / CGI movie fare?

Neel Sethi in Disney's The Jungle Book

The movie is, actually, pretty good. It is in many ways truer to the spirit of the books than the 1960s aberration that does so little to recognise Kipling’s genius. Bagheera, the black panther, is sleek, noble and powerful. Baloo, annoyingly, is a charming buffoon – a hangover, I suspect, from the cartoon. Kaa, the giant snake is, inaccurately, interested only in eating Mowgli, whereas in the original stories their relationship is far more subtle – and indeed in the books it is Kaa who saves Mowgli from the Bandar Log when he arrives at the last minute after Baloo and Bagheera are overrun. Kaa’s hypnotic fascination of the monkeys is spine-chilling in the book.

In the movie, the collection of stories is streamlined. So, it is now Bagheera who finds Mowgli, whereas it is the boy himself who walks to Raksha, the she-wolf, in her cave, and is adopted by her. It is she who faces down Shere Khan who tracks him there. All this is removed from the story, understandably so, because the relationships would become too tangled.

What suffers because of this is the subtlety and nuance of the many-faceted stories and their meanings as they are pulled together into a single narrative, and, unfortunately the film takes on a far too familiar shape. Mowgli has an arch enemy, Shere Khan, and must acquire the skills to overcome him by finding his true self. It is the old story of the Hero’s Journey – pretty much the secret origin story of every single superhero movie that has been made in the last 20 years. It feels as if Hollywood has forgotten that there are other stories than those told by the DC and Marvel franchises.

There is one outstanding positive about this movie, however. Neel Sethi is the only real person we see in it, and he is utterly convincing. How he acted against green screens opposite non-existent co-actors is difficult to imagine. Sure, there would have been stand-ins for him to play against in the scenes, but the act of sustained imagination required of acting in such an environment is impressive. One moment sums it up for me. Mowgli is sitting on Baloo’s stomach floating down the river, when the bear unexpectedly splashes him. The look on Sethi’s face is one of genuine surprise. It feels utterly real – and this with a character made of digitalised pixels.

In other ways, the choice of Sethi as Mowgli is perplexing. He has long gangling legs in the film, and seems often to shuffle around, as if he is picking his way along a stony beach, barefoot – surely not the way a child born to jungle life would move. This, again, is perhaps a call back to the perennially annoying Disney cartoon in which Mowgli is comically gawky.

Towards its end, the movie descends into the Bond-villain-meets-his-doom denouement that this type of production can’t avoid.

So, what happens to Shere Khan being trampled to death and skinned in an act of concerted pack revenge?

All this is gone. Instead, Mowgli faces the tiger alone, and consigns him to the flames in a grandiose fall into a jungle fire. It is a very different feeling from the books, which emphasise co-operation. This is the story of a hero acting alone.

Nevertheless, this is a good effort. Unlike the 1960s cartoon, it does have something to do with the books it is named after. Not as much as I would like, but at least a little bit.

Perhaps it is a good thing that these films are so different from the books. After all, the books continue to stand in their own right as a separate – and far superior – entity to the Disney versions.