I’ve never understood this contemporary Hollywood trend that fetishizes the Gritty Remake. It’s hard to miss it, but for those who haven’t been paying attention, there is, for some reason, this ridiculous need to take everything that was once innocent in a bygone decade and update it with the trappings of real-world darkness, grimness, and surprising sobriety. I’m not quite sure where it began—perhaps it was Batman Begins, or maybe Michael Bay’s Transformers movies—but what was once an exciting new creative direction a decade ago is now a parody of itself. A parody that everyone strangely seems willing to buy into.
That’s why I generally regarded The Jungle Book (and all the other Gritty Remakes that have recently come out/are coming out, like Noah—they gave the frigging Bible a dark reboot!—Maleficent, and the upcoming The Legend of Tarzan, just to name a few) with apathy. I saw the posters, I saw the promo materials, then promptly filed them in some void in my head because you guys just can’t mess with these things. The Jungle Book is best known as a childhood classic for at least two generations, and to render it in live-action in an era where Space Jam would be laughed out the building if you proposed it today means that very little about this movie is going to be innocent. While Mowgli will still be a cute feral child, Baloo is not going to be a cartoonishly rotund bear, Kaa is not going to hypnotize with trippy red and yellow eyes, and Shere Khan is going to be a brutal dictator this time around.
So why then, I kept asking myself, did we really need a live-action Jungle Book?
After exiting the theater and letting it have a couple of days to marinate, however, I can say I was wrong about it. Only partly wrong, though. It’s not entirely dark, therefore it would be wrong to completely write it off as a Gritty Remake. The grim, broody parts are grim and broody, but I’m glad to say the film takes care to create light where it can. If you consider the ways of old Disney into the equation, I realized it’s no different from the scary woods scenes in Snow White or the Monstro scenes in Pinocchio or everyone’s favorite, Mufasa’s death by stampede in The Lion King. The mood, the atmosphere just comes across differently when you’re using photorealistic CGI instead of hand-drawn animation, or even cartoony graphics. You’re not looking at a caricature, so everything seems super-serious.
Perhaps there was just some dissonance on the way I remember The Jungle Book from my childhood and the way it was presented to me through this film. Yeah, even though I know The Jungle Book, like most of its other popular properties, has been Disneyfied for families and this remake is more faithful to the Rudyard Kipling’s original works. I’m not sure if this was the case with other fans, but it’s the cinematic equivalent of seeing a kid sibling all grown up in front of you; where did all those years go? When did he/she look like this? What happened to the little boy/girl you had such fond, innocent memories of bullying?
But even though it looks and feels different, it’s safe to say that it’s still got the same heart. In fact, I didn’t realize how much I wanted the movie to be live-action until the final fight scene—it’s gritty, but it’s a legitimate adrenaline rush (like it is in the real jungle) that I would have appreciated if I were still a little boy. (And apparently I still am, because I enjoyed it that much.) And that’s probably the endgame here, one I should’ve really seen knowing how big of a fan I am of modern Marvel movies: just because the lighting might be a little darker, the violence a little bigger, the drums a little more thundering, doesn’t mean one can’t find a childlike kind of joy in it.
I couldn’t say it was perfect, though. Although the movie’s tone is defensible, it’s still a little not cartoony enough to make its classic song numbers (The Bare Necessities, I Wan’Na Be Like You) sound natural in its environment, no matter how good Bill Murray (Baloo) and Christopher Walken (King Louie) can tear the blues up. They either should have lightened the whole thing up more (there’s Scarlett Johansson version of Kaa’s Trust In Me that does not end up in the final cut) or done away with at least King Louie’s song. That one just didn’t match up with Christopher Walken’s Don Corleone act.
Its underlying themes also don’t hold up: the narrative strongly teaches that man and their meddling ways are evil (to the point that the antagonist gets an intricate backstory that makes him sympathetic, and the ending is even changed) and destroy nature, but in the end it’s these same things that beat Shere Khan (Idris Elba). There are obviously two sides of the coin, but it doesn’t tie them together well enough for kids to understand that the impact of humanity on nature isn’t as plain as red-flower-burns-everything-in-its-path. Also, what seems like an environmentalist film ends up telling you that man can fuck around and mess nature up, and it’s okay for him to do so because nature can fix itself right after, right?
But it’s fine. If this movie is mainly made for kids, then these inconsistencies would end up not really mattering. What matters more is that the jungle looks even more alive, we get the rush of the hunt, and the forces of good win over the forces of evil in the end. The Jungle Book didn’t blow my mind or move into a special new place in my heart, as the best Disney flicks are capable of doing, but if there’s one good thing I can take away from it, it’s that there are still some Gritty Remakes that aren’t really ridiculous Gritty Remakes. Now let’s see what The Legend of Tarzan has for us.
Image from Screenrant