The Jungle Book

Cast: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken

Director: Jon Favreau

Writer: Justin Marks

Of all the Disney movies to be treated to a live-action remake, The Jungle Book is perhaps the most beloved of all. It boasts of unforgettable characters, enjoyable music and a timeless charm, traits which leave little room for improvement. Although I can understand why Disney might want to update some of these tales and introduce them to a new audience, I so far haven’t been sold by any of their attempts. On one end of the spectrum is Cinderella which contains some aspects that were better than the original but also just as many that were worse. On the other end was Alice in Wonderland which completely and fundamentally misunderstood what it was that made the original cartoon (and the books for that matter) good in the first place. The Jungle Book has posed a curious dilemma for me because while there are very few aspects of the film that I’ve found to be worse than the original, there are just as few that I’ve found to be better. I enjoyed the film, there’s no question about that. The trouble is that I’m not sure whether this film should actually exist.

Like the 1967 cartoon The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a “man cub”. As an infant Mowgli was found alone in the jungle by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and was taken to the wolf pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) where he was raised by Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). Years later Mowgli is discovered by Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a ferocious tiger with a bitter hatred of men, who swears he will kill the boy. Mowgli agrees to leave for the sake of the pack and runs away with Bagheera. The two are separated when Shere Khan makes his attack, leaving Mowgli stranded in the middle of the jungle. After an encounter with Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), an enormous python with hypnotic powers, Mowgli falls into the company of the bear Baloo (Bill Murray). The two form a friendship as Mowgli agrees to help him make preparations for the winter. Mowgli however remains in great danger as Shere Khan relentlessly continues the hunt for him.

Although the same characters, songs and basic plot as the original cartoon are all present in this movie, it should be noted that it is by no means an exact copy. The Jungle Book offers a slightly different take on the story by drawing inspiration from Rudyard Kipling’s original works. Thus the film includes such additions as the Law of the Jungle, details of Mowgli’s backstory and the red flower. There is certainly a degree of weight and significance to the characters’ actions that isn’t present in its predecessor but it doesn’t always work to the film’s advantage. Shere Khan for example is an attempt by the film to combine his literary counterpart, a manipulative brute who wants to rule the jungle, with that of the cartoon, a charming but menacing beast who simply does as he pleases, and the result is a confused character with an inconsistent motivation. I was never sure whether Shere Khan’s ultimate plan was to assert his dominance in the jungle or to simply kill Mowgli. In either case the plan he concocts just doesn’t make sense to me.

I think the confusion with Shere Khan is symptomatic of a certain disharmony in terms of story and tone. The original books, on one hand, are serious in their approach as they tell tightly-structured stories with clear morals while the Disney cartoon, in contrast, is much more light-hearted and is more interested in simply portraying comedic highlights and character interactions than in focusing on its narrative. Both of these stories had clear ideas of what they were. It seems to me this film wants to be the best of both worlds: an enjoyable, daring and adventurous family movie with a serious story complete with comedy, music and darkness. While I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film fails to blend these two different styles together, there were still moments when I felt it struggled. For example in the scene where Mowgli meets King Louie (played magnificently by Christopher Walken), the character comes across as brutally intimidating and for a moment I was afraid for the little boy. The tone in that scene was then shattered when Louie suddenly burst out with ‘I Wanna Be Like You’, a song that has no business being sung by a ruthless, terrifying giant.

However I’m getting too caught up in the negatives and want to talk about the positives, of which there are a lot. For one thing The Jungle Book could very well be the most visually stunning film of the year with its breathtaking landscapes and astonishingly lifelike animals. The animals may not have the advantage of being as expressive as those in the cartoon but that’s when the voice acting comes in. Whatever my issues with Shere Khan I definitely cannot dispute the menacing charm in Elba’s voice. Murray is also perfectly cast as the lovable Baloo and provides the film with plenty of heart and laughs. The bond he forms with Mowgli is a truly affectionate one and when they sang ‘The Bare Necessities’ together I was grinning from ear to ear. Mowgli himself is played splendidly by newcomer Neel Stehi whose performance is especially praiseworthy considering that he was the only living breathing person actually in front of the camera. That the jungle and the animals in it were able to come to life in this movie is a remarkable achievement in both visual effects and direction.

The one issue that continues to nag at me however is that, as much as I enjoyed this movie, the visuals were the only aspect that I found to be substantially better than the cartoon while the characterisation of Shere Khan was the only part that I found to be worse. The rest of the film, while certainly different in terms of content, still felt more or less the same in terms of the impression it left on me despite its attempts to distinguish itself. The film draws so heavily from the cartoon that I don’t think it’s possible to assess it in isolation and, as enjoyable as this movie could be, there were moments when I felt my enjoyment was inspired more by my nostalgia than by the movie itself. And yet, for children who may not have grown up with the cartoon the way I have, I can absolutely imagine their imaginations being awestruck by the visual spectacle and their hearts being captured by the delightful characters. I’ve tried for so long to reconcile my feelings for this film that I’m not sure I could ever choose a star rating that can truly encompass them. However, in the words of the great Roger Ebert, “your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you”. On that basis I have to give The Jungle Book credit for the enjoyment that I got from watching it, however ambivalently.



Eddie the Eagle

Cast: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Iris Berben, Christopher Walken

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Writers: Sean Macaulay, Simon Kelton

We Brits love a good underdog story. We all love to root for the everyman that we can see ourselves in as they overcome adversities and obstacles on the road to victory. Britain in particular has an enthusiasm for the David vs. Goliath types of stories that can be traced back to her small island mentality and ‘the Dunkirk spirit’. It is a romantic sensibility that has often been featured in British sports films from Chariots of Fire to Bend It Like Beckham. It’s why Eddie Edwards was so popular with the crowd when he competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Edwards was an amateur skier who, without sponsorship or promotion, was able to earn his place amongst the champions of the world at the single greatest sporting event on the planet. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect concept for a British underdog film.

Growing up in a working-class household, Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) has dreamed of competing in the Olympics since he was 10-years-old. His mother Janette (Jo Hartley) wants her son to dream and to have great ambitions while his father Terry (Keith Allen) wants to bring Eddie back down to Earth. Even after becoming a proficient skier, Eddie is refused so much as a chance to try for the Olympics due to his unsophisticated manner and lack of a ‘proper’ upbringing. Determined not to give up on his dream, Eddie finds that he can improve his chances of qualifying for the Olympics if he competes in a sport without any current British competitors, opting for the ski jump. He sets off for the training facility in Germany where he is mocked and ridiculed by those who are more practised and seasoned than him. There he falls into the company of Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a former American ski jump champion, who agrees to train him in the sport.

Although the story in this film is largely fictionalised (Jackman’s character isn’t real, Eddie was a more accomplished sportsman than the film suggests, etc.) the film very much captures the underdog spirit that Eddie Edwards inspired. Eddie is portrayed as an awkward and clumsy person who lacks class and style but makes up for it in heart and determination. He adamantly refuses to be daunted by the challenges he faces or to be disheartened by the ridicule of others to the point that he will suffer great pain and indignity in order to realise his ambition. He isn’t after fame or fortune or even prestige. All he wants is a chance to prove himself and to participate in an event that celebrates achievement, hard work and fortitude. When he finally makes it to Calgary he doesn’t care about winning or breaking records, he is just so grateful to even be there that he displays a fervent enthusiasm that proves to be contagious to the world watching him. In many ways Eddie Edwards is the greatest fulfilment of the Olympic motto which holds that the most important thing is “not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle”.

As admirable as the story is though, I’m afraid there isn’t much to set it apart from the line-up of sports films that have come before. The underdog’s journey is very much by the numbers and the underdog himself isn’t exactly the most compelling of protagonists despite Egerton’s efforts. The portrayal of the British Olympic officials as a pompous and sneering bunch who villainously set out to prevent Eddie from succeeding also seemed rather generic to me (although if you do have to cast someone in that part, you certainly can’t do much better than Captain Darling). Jackman however provides the film with many highlights as a cynical, drunken trainer who sees in Eddie a passion and a respect for the sport and the Olympics that he had never possessed himself as a young champion. There is also much style in the film’s visuals as well as a variety of enjoyable montages depicting Eddie’s training.

In spite of the standard, even formulaic, approach that the film applies towards its story I was still very rooting for Eddie in his journey. As implausibly childish as his character could be, his zeal and perseverance were still soundly felt. As transparently fabricated as some elements could be, the film was still able to capture the spirit of the underdog story that Eddie Edwards lived in an affective way. It isn’t a film that takes risks and that never surprises, but it also isn’t a film that feels tired or that falls flat. It is sentimental, it is clichéd and it is schmaltzy, but those who aren’t put off by those qualities could very well find it to be affectionate, charming and even inspirational. Eddie the Eagle is not going to break any boundaries the way that Eddie Edwards did, but for the right viewer it will prove to be an enjoyable feel-good British underdog movie.