A Rambling but Recommendatory Review of The Jungle Book

By Tom Cole May 10, 2016
Bengal tiger in India
The “most elegant and irreproachable creature ever”, suddenly seen by the writer at Ranthambore National Park

Perhaps you’re familiar with Arthur C. Clarke’s insight that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I feel simultaneously stuck-in-intellectual-mud and immensely lucky to experience just about any technology as indistinguishable from magic; I never sit down at the computer without thinking—with relief—about typewriting on those clanky old machines (though IBM Selectric’s madly, magically accurate whirling print ball still blows my techno-peasant mind). I will expire long before I can make any real sense of Google’s ability to almost instantaneously rummage through much of human knowledge and pluck out that exact Clarke quote.

(A digression, if you don’t mind: Imagine you were suddenly transported—iPhoneless, clad in a plain linen smock, let’s say—to King Arthur’s Court, as a certain Connecticut Yankee was in Mark Twain’s eponymous book. Just moments ago you were living in a technologically wondrous civilization, but what proof could you produce of that civilization’s marvels? You could tell the Arthurians about International Space Stations and self-driving electric cars and movies in which computer-generated animals are basically indistinguishable from the real thing—as in the recently released, wonder-rich The Jungle Book. But those medieval folk were used to crazy babbling. So what tangible evidence could you put forth to convince them that you weren’t radically reality-challenged? Think about it. Most of us probably have about as vague an understanding of the technologies that support as our hunter-gatherer forbearers did about why the sun kept coming up every day.)

So I’m sitting in a theater with my fellow India-lover and mate Mary, and only a few moments into The Jungle Book, she turns to me and whispers, “That’s Ranthambore.” I agreed. The Disney Imagineers had clearly done their homework. Mary and I and our friend and Micato Tour Director Hemender Singh of Vedsa had a trio of tiger sightings in Ranthambore National Park a couple of years ago (one from a tantalizing distance, two so close I still get delightful shivers thinking about them), and here we were, back again (in 3D!), happy to be in the moody, woody jungle, whether by digital manipulation or by magic.

Way south of here you’ll find a series of blogs about animal and plant intelligence, how the old bugaboo against anthropomorphism is eroding as we break out of our superstitious anthropocentrism and learn just how smart and emotive earthly life is. That said, I must testify that I’m not a fan of what I think of, in my persnickety wisdom, as over-anthropomorphism-amounting-to-trivialization, which Disney often basks in.

Rudyard Kipling was no such basker. I read his two Jungle Books in my early thirties, shortly after falling in love with India. Like almost all of us, I’d been raised in a Disneyfied culture, in which animals are routinely represented as (very often eccentrically amusing) humans in exaggerated beastly form, their animalness lost in all the merriment. Kipling, though, saw India’s pythons and bears and tigers as deeply and fascinatingly alien (as they indeed are; I often think that the closest I’ll ever come to really getting to know an extraterrestrial is my daily interaction with Mimi, our wonderfully unfathomable French bulldog). And yet, great writer and great brain that he was, Kipling gave those animals enough anthropomorphic life to magically bridge much of the gap between them and the young feral human, Mowgli (well and calmly played in the current film by the beautiful young Neel Sethi, who doesn’t seem to be doing what he almost always was doing: interacting with a blank green screen and some thrown-together props).

To enjoy magic you’ve got to give it lots of rein (or it quickly becomes a nightmare). And my initial affection for the rightness of the jungle of the movie extended to Scarlett Johnansson’s brilliantly seductive snake, Kaa, and Kenya’s own Lupita Nyong’o as Mowgli’s adoptive wolf mother Raksha (more than once I was sure the wolf pack was actual, only to find it was virtual). Baloo, the rather too-massive bear, was voiced by Bill Murray with moderate restraint and trademark drollery. Idris Elba as Shere Khan was earnestly villainous. (It was uncomfortable for me to see a tiger as the personification of evil, since I consider Panthera tigris tigris quite possibly the most elegant and irreproachable creature ever—following Sartre’s definition of elegance as “that which transforms the greatest amount of being into appearance.” No sentient being is so being as a tiger, and no appearance so dramatically and gracefully reflects all that fantastic being as an insouciantly imperial tiger. But I remembered that in Kipling’s day, tigers were very often scourges for rural Indians. Plus, Shere Khan had been mortally embittered by a traumatic encounter with, of all things, a fire-bearing human, a typical Kipling touch).

I don’t want to be leave the impression that I’m across-the-board opposed to Disneyism. The man and his now massive company have spread a lot of joy, created more than their share of blameless magic. And, after all, Kipling’s jungle and its citizens weren’t meant to be characters in a leafy War and Peace.

Perhaps the least Disneyfied denizens of the jungle are the Bandar-log, the chaotic and inarticulate monkeys who scamper and flit through the jungle (reminiscent of the malevolent winged monkeys of The Wizard of Oz). The Bandar-log are minions of the decidedly Disnyesque King Louie, a King Kongish orangutan somehow transported to India from his historic habitat in Sumatra and Borneo. Kipling probably wouldn’t have cottoned to King Louie, and I was a little peevish about the King and his penchant for oddly anachronistic singing. But I’m an enthusiast at heart, a lover of the Jungle Books, even when they’re monkeyed with. And anyway, it’s hard to resist the unique Christopher Walken as Louie, even when he sings the—to me—pointless “I Wan’na Be Like You,” a song New Yorker critic Anthony Lane calls “racially uneasy.”

But, hey, the thing about magic is that micromanagement sort of takes the magic out of it. Go see The Jungle Book. Even better yet—if you’ll excuse the heartfelt plug—hook up with us, and head over to Rathambore for a pleasantly electric encounter with Shere Khan, the real King.


For more, see the—may we say—unusually readable itinerary for our 16-magic-day, frequently scheduled, guaranteed departure Classic trip The Soul of India, which includes a couple of days of game driving in the beautiful tiger haven of Ranthambore National Park (based from the sublime Oberoi Vanyavilas, last year voted #1 in the Top 25 Luxury Hotels in India by TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Awards).

Speaking of Micato’s ancestral homeland, you may like to receive our resplendent, photo-rich Micato India brochure.

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