This storyteller finds six cracks in the new Jungle Book that mar the narrative in this visually enchanting movie, providing a lesson in how to construct a story by ensuring your characters’ motivations and choices are consistent and believable.
So you already saw the recent reboot of The Jungle Book film and you know it’s very popular and praised by critics and viewers alike. Looking at the headline of this post, you probably think I’m crazy. “Whaaat? Did you find issues with this beautiful film? You’re just crazy and jealous. Go back to the jungle where you belong!”
Right. But I’ll say it again: this latest Jungle Book installment is so flawed, I feel an obligation to call it out. I don’t care about photo-realistic visuals – give me a gripping, entrancing story and believable characters I want to care for. That’s where this movie did not deliver.
The Jungle Book promised a lot, but did it deliver?
When a writer goes to the cinema, he doesn’t see mind-blowing effects and CGI first, or good-looking actors and sexy actresses. Writers watch a movie differently: we are keen on the story and the characters’ paths from the beginning of the film to its end. A writer watches closely each and every step on this path, every crevice and every choice. If the path is linear and easy and the choices are hollow or false or just don’t matter at all, a writer might decide a film is a failure – even if it is delightful to look at.
The Jungle Book‘s story begins on an unbearably hot, sunny day when drought has not only come to the jungle where a human cub named Mowgli was living, but to the writers’ and director’s heads. Once full and strong and rich, the river of creativity has run dry, leaving only a streamlet. And so the cracks started crawling along the dry, scorched earth of The Jungle Book movie…
Crack one: Baloo
Baloo in this movie is kind of time-server and manipulator of the animal world. He takes advantage of the others just to fill his belly up. He makes a little boy work for him, he doesn’t care that the boy could easily slip from the rock or that the bees could sting him to death. Moreover, Baloo tells Mowgli lies: these bees don’t sting, it’s all right, go ahead. Then, out of the blue, Baloo starts to act nobly. He leaves the pile of fresh, sweet honey the boy got for him and offers to help him and give him a ride to the human village.
Seriously? Does this behavior have any logic to it? What do you think? Is it inherent in the character’s traits and motivation?
For the love of Kipling, no! In good stories, characters have two main drives: to avoid danger and to get a treasure (speaking figuratively, of course), just like in real life. So Baloo, a manipulative and selfish bear, would never play the role of a Good Samaritan and help the boy simply out of the goodness of his heart while abandoning his precious treasure: fresh and tasty honey.
This crack could have been patched up relatively easily if the movie makers went for one of two options:
1. Mowgli could ask Baloo for help and in return promise to get all the honey down from the rock, or
2. Baloo could offer Mowgli a deal (which is totally in his manner): he would help the boy get to the human village, but first the boy would have to get all the honey down from the rock.
But The Jungle Book’s writers chose the easy way, taking advantage of a fast pace, and ignoring logic in their character’s behavior. In the end, this first crack happened to be so deep that it gave birth to…
Crack two: King Louie
King Louie’s behavior is just as illogical and hard to believe – and I’m not even talking about his abrupt singing. He’s an orangutan (well, not exactly, but let’s just assume he is), but he’s a Bandar-log king as well, right? Kings usually are keen on luxury, and we see a lot of it in his royal hall, including piles of food and piles of treasures. So we can be sure Louie is a pretty typical king who likes luxury as well as power.
So why does he destroy the entire monkey temple trying to catch a miserable boy? His Bandar-log army could do it better and faster, without tumbling down the temple. They did it before, remember?
I find two reasons why this scene is hard to believe.
- Kings let others do their dirty work. As a king, Louie is used to giving orders, not to executing them himself. He wouldn’t even have to raise his big hairy hand and flick a finger. One short order would have been enough. And while his citizens were pursuing the boy, he would have been enjoying his papaya. Or his singing. (I’d prefer the papaya.)
- Louie wouldn’t destroy his home. King Louie has a pretty wondrous home. Nevertheless, he acts too impulsively and completely destroys his only dwelling, his royal palace, with his own hands. Now tell me, what kind of king would do that?
I also find it hard to believe how easily King Louie breaks down the stone walls and pillars of the monkey temple. Yes, he’s huge and terribly strong, but he’s still not King Kong. But, OK, I can see why they made this choice and I can let it go. But what I can’t forgive is the dubious behavior of the wolves, which splits the whole film with a long…
Crack three: The wolves
There are moments in this movie when wolves don’t act like wolves at all. And those moments are the key ones.
Remember the first scene Shere Khan appeared in? Akela fearlessly cuts off the tiger and tells him straight to his face not to dare to trouble the peace of their domain. Here rules Akela, not Shere Khan. He came to the pond from a foreign land and he ought to respect the local law. That’s a nice scene.
But to my big surprise, when Shere Khan isn’t around, Akela and the wolf pack act like a bunch of cowards. They gather on the rock discussing how it would be best for them to get rid of the human cub. When Mowgli nobly decides to go away by his own will, only his wolf mother Raksha tries to stop him. But what does it matter? Akela is quick to agree with the boy’s decision to venture out into the dangerous jungle. Akela would agree to anything if only the boy would be far off from the pack.
Let’s fast forward a bit. Mowgli has already left, Akela is lying on the rock, thinking everything will be fine now. Shere Khan freely approaches the rock and climbs up to Akela with no one to stop him or at least warn Akela. Obviously, the tiger can walk where he wishes, be it his domain or someone else’s. The wolves seem to be completely fine with it.
A short conversation follows. Akela is calm and tries to cajole the tiger. He got rid of the human cub so the tiger should be satisfied and the peace will follow. But the tiger can’t buy that – suddenly he leaps at Akela, snaps him in half and hurls him off the rock.
It’s probably the most shocking scene of The Jungle Book. Such abrupt and senseless violence in a seemingly kid-friendly movie. But what shocked me even more was the wolves’ reaction to Akela’s murder. All that Raksha does is scream. That’s it. Wolves jump to their feet and start pacing to and fro with their tails between their legs and their muzzles lowered while Shere Khan is spouting his threats.
Can you believe that? That pack of wolves, whose leader has just been murdered before their very eyes, without any reason or fair fight, does nothing to pay Shere Khan back? It was a terrible crime by all laws, the law of the jungle included. It was an unforgivable insult to their wolfish pride. But the whole pack is afraid of an old, beaten up, and scorched tiger? Seriously? The tiger they could have thrown down the rock if they all had attacked him at once. Can you believe that the leader’s mate is just listening to the threats of her cubs’ father’s murderer and does nothing?
So much for the wolf’s oath, recited solemnly throughout the movie by just about anybody (including Mowgli, the wolves, Baloo, and Bagheera): “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
This wolf pack betrayed their own oath twice:
1. When they forced their “wolf by the blood,” as they called him numerous times, to leave the pack (Mowgli wouldn’t have left if it weren’t for the wolves’ council).
2. When they allowed Shere Khan to murder their leader and completely get away with it.
it’s worth considering how wolves are usually presented in the movies and books. They are either noble animals that honor their pack and sometimes even help humans, or they can be frightful and bloodthirsty beasts that kill anything, including humans. In any case, wolves aren’t usually depicted as cowards – we have other animals for that.
But Jon Favreau, the director of this new version of The Jungle Book, killed my faith in the law of the jungle and honor. The noble animals in this movie that either recite, learn, or teach the oath turn out to be windbags and cowards.
If I were in Mowgli’s moccasins, I wouldn’t try so desperately to become a part of their pack. In fact, King Louie’s offer seems to be more compelling, on the condition that he doesn’t start singing again.
Crack four: Convenience of scale
There are times when the jungle looks vast (in the beginning) and other times when it looks small (in the end). It’s very handy for the director: when he wants to make the travel longer, the jungle has all kinds of obstacles and dangers at hand, like a ravine with earth slides, a long river, a tropical forest with gigantic snakes. But when the movie is dashing to the hot finale, trying to keep up with Mowgli running with a torch, the jungle shrinks to a small park with a short and easy path. You almost can see a fluffy rug under his feet.
Crack five: The trap
Mowgli sets up a trap for Shere Khan using a dead tree. Now, dead means dry. And dry means easy to set fire to. And easy to set fire to means that when everything is ablaze all around, this dead tree will also have fire flower petals blossoming and dancing. But the director shows us not one prick of flame on the driest tree in the jungle, while everything around it is red with fire. It’s too convenient – and too unlikely.
This could be fixed in an instance, if only the director had put fire flowers here and there on the dead tree. But no one cared enough to do that, and while the fire was raging around, the tormented ground of The Jungle Book shuddered for the last time.
Crack six: The climax
The final crack in the film consists of one of the clumsiest climaxes ever: the boy has set fire to the jungle and endangered the lives of so many animals, but somehow he becomes a hero. As Shere Khan fairly noted, he has thrown away his only weapon: the fire flower.
A couple moments before, the animals were so scared of Mowgli that they couldn’t meet his eyes and stepped back. But now they take his side and recite wolf’s oath. It’s particularly odd to watch Baloo participating in it. He is first to say the oath – the very same oath he mocked and called propaganda earlier.
But that’s not the worst part. This I can handle. But what I just can’t forgive is how easily Mowgli’s fatal mistake is forgotten. He brought the fire flower into the jungle and risked many lives. They didn’t show us the fire in too much detail, but we can clearly see it’s devastating enough: many trees and animals and birds and insects perished in the flames. For this terrible, unforgivable mistake, the law of the jungle has only one punishment: death.
But this mistake is not only unpunished, it’s rewarded. After Shere Khan’s death, Bagheera (the narrator) admits he’s seen plenty of things and experienced a lot, but he would never forget that night, the night when the human cub managed to do a remarkable thing that had never done before: he united all the animals and brought them to peace.
Right… that’s a fabulous way of making everybody friends: cause a calamity, kill the mutual enemy, and then take a few elephants and change the river’s path to put out a fire. No one thinks about the aftermath of such a huge disaster. Yeah, live long and prosper, Mowgli and friends.
It’s surprising to me why no one notices the terrible outcome of Mowgli’s grave desire to take revenge on Shere Khan. If only he had listened to old wise Bagheera and traveled to the human village, all this wouldn’t have happened. Shere Khan would be furious, but what would he do? The human cub would stop annoying him with his scent, and the tiger would go back where he came from.
It wasn’t all bad
This movie has some great and valuable messages weaved organically into the plot. An adult will surely notice them and a child will understand and remember them thanks to the dynamic picture unfolding in front of their eyes.
The new Jungle Book teaches us to always be ourselves and not to try to become someone else just because someone thinks you should. Another valuable message is, you shouldn’t follow every rule blindly – sometimes you must break the rules to save someone’s life.
But the finale adds one more message, and this one isn’t nearly as nice: revenge at all costs. Mowgli doesn’t respect his mentor’s advice to travel to the human village and shouts he will avenge Akela’s death. Then he ventures forth to accomplish this stupid task and in the outcome he burns down the jungle.
Generally, a child shouting about revenge and who has something to take revenge for is a horrible and immensely sad thing. Such themes aren’t family friendly at all. They are suitable for a film about a war but not for a Disney film about animals who even sing occasionally.
I have a feeling that director Jon Favreau never decided who he produced this movie for, adults or children. As a result, we saw a super-realistic picture showing animals that very convincingly live, sing, suffer, kill, and die. If it’s a kids’ movie, it has too much violence, and the main story arc (Mowgli is banished – Akela is murdered – Mowgli avenges Akela) would have to be rewritten.
If Favreau’s target audience is adults, then he never should have taken a part in this. Turning a classic Disney cartoon into super realistic animation/feature film about animals and a boy driven by revenge – it’s a strange idea.
It’s a mystery to me why film studios continue to release such movies: beautiful picture, hole-ridden plot. Why the filmmakers don’t channel more of their resources into polishing their story until it shines – and even more so, has no holes in it?
So what do you think? Do you agree with me on the issues with The Jungle Book or do I criticize the movie too severely? Or perhaps reading this post, you found that your story has similar flaws? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below.
This post originally appeared on PlayingWriter.com. Reposted with permission.
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