Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, November 24, 2017

Director Report Card: Stephen Sommers (1994)

3. The Jungle Book

Within recent years, Disney has discovered a surefire formula for success. Many of their animated films are iconic, beloved classics that are well-known all around the world. Translating these stories into live action, sprinkling a few recognizable faces in the cast and piling on the CGI spectacle, has resulted in multiple massive blockbusters. It doesn't matter that these movies range from bland to outright offensive, because they make a shit-ton of money. Disney shows no sign of slowing down either, with CGI-heavy, quote-unquote live action versions of “Dumbo,” “Aladdin,” and “The Lion King” coming next. But this trend is not as new as you might think. In 1994, just in time for the 100th anniversary of Rudyard Kipling's book, a new live action version of “The Jungle Book” would hit theater screens. Following the modest success of his “Huck Finn” for Disney, Stephen Sommers would direct, placing Kipling's famous characters into a homage to classic pulp adventure cinema.

Though Rudyard Kipling's name was above the title on the poster, this “Jungle Book” is really only inspired by his writing. In this version, Mowgli is a young boy traveling with a group of trackers through the Indian jungles. After their camp is attacked by Shere Khan, Mowgli is lost in the woods. Eventually, he's adopted by a pack of wolves and becomes accepted as a citizen of the jungle. Years later, now a man, Mowgli is rediscovered by humanity. He's taken in by Colonel Brydon and Dr. Plumford, who try to teach him the ways of man. Along the way, he falls in love with Kitty, Brydon's daughter. But Kitty is already engaged to Captain Boone. When she rejects him, Boone becomes violent and insists Mowgli leads him to the mythical city of Hanuman, a place full of treasure and danger.

Yes, Sommers' “The Jungle Book” is a pretty loose adaptation of Kipling's book. Aside from the some of the characters, the two have pretty much nothing in common. Considering most of Disney's modern remakes of their cartoons are practically shot-for-shot remakes, I somewhat welcome this. Instead, Sommers uses the concept as a set-up for a modern day jungle adventure movie. The jungle adventure was once a very common genre in the forties and fifties but fell out of fashion years ago. Sommers joyfully hits most of the trademark notes. There's quicksand, secret treasure, boobie traps, friendly animals, deadly animals, mysterious Hindis, a lovely maiden, pith helmets, and a hero who is very familiar with the jungle. About the only thing that's missing is the safari stock footage.

What perhaps elevates “The Jungle Book” over its flaws is that it's actually about something. The differences between the law of the jungle and the law of man is the story's backbone. While most takes on “The Jungle Book” focus on how Mowgli is pulled between the jungle and the world of man, in this version, Mowgli represents the purer world of nature. He comes from a place where there's no greed, where residents never take more than they need. Men, meanwhile, kill for sport or gold. The film is not subtle about this. The “civilized” bad guys are far more vicious than the “savage” hero. Mowgli outright dismisses the ways of man several times. However, it adds a little more gristle to what would might've just been a standard adventure flick. The movie clearly takes target at imperialism and the exploitation of nature.

On the surface, Jason Scott Lee probably doesn't seem like the best casting for Mowgli. Mowgli is probably the most famous Indian character in Western literature while Lee is Chinese/Hawaiian. Lee, however, is fantastic in the part. His earliest moments on-screen are silent. The lack of dialogue doesn't prevent Lee from creating an interesting character. Later, as Mowgli learns to speak English, Lee's performance really comes to life. He mimes the English words in a hilarious way. His body language is perfectly controlled and precise, such as a moment where he mocks Captain Boone by copying his movements. Lee manages to make dialogue that might've been overwrought seem totally sincere. He's perfectly convincing as a boy raised in the jungle, more attuned to nature than the world of man.

Starring opposite Lee is Cary Elwes, who happily hams it up as Captain Boone. Elwes is the face of British snobbery. He is prim, proper, and utterly stuck-up. He's also a huge asshole, relishing his privilege as a military officer in a foreign country. This makes him an ideal foil to Lee's Mowgli, as Elwes' Boone represents everything that's bad about the world of man. As the story goes on, the character becomes more obviously villainous, giving the actor a chance to really chew up the scenery. He's a perfectly hatable bad guy and ideal for this kind of story.

As in Sommers' previous films, he pulls together a really solid supporting cast too. Years before “300” and “Dredd” brought her to a new audience, Lean Headey played Kitty here. She's not a bad-ass in this movie, instead playing a more innocent character, but Headey still excels at playing a character standing up to tradition. Sam Neill is likable as Colonel Brydon, the film's reasonable authority figure. He also provides the film's lyrical opening and closing narration, taken directly from Kipling's book. Jason Flemyng is well suited to the part of Wilkens, a cowardly and increasingly nervous member of Boone's team. My favorite supporting player is John Cleese as Dr. Plumford. Plumford is also perfectly British in his stuffiness but plays it for comedic effect, something he's obviously very good at.

“The Jungle Book” would be Stephen Sommers' first proper action movie, bringing him to the genre where he would find the most success. It's easy to see why. His “Jungle Book” is fleet-footed and inventive. This becomes clear during a chase through the busy Indian streets, which concludes with an amusing gag on a levitating rope, something that feels right out of a classic jungle adventure flick. There's a well orchestrated shoot-out midway through, boosted by triumphing elephants. Lee's Mowgli transforms fully into an action hero during a cliff side fight with one of Boone's henchmen. The scene concludes with a guy carrying a large stone being pushed away, a moment the director would practically reprise in “The Mummy.”

In fact, “The Jungle Book” is a pretty clear predecessor to Sommers' “Mummy.” Both features a team of unsympathetic rivals to the heroes, who are killed off in increasingly grisly way. Scenes of drowning in quicksand or tiger attacks probably push the limits of the PG rating. The comparison becomes utterly unavoidable in the last act, taking place in an ancient temple full of boobie traps. Such as a room slowly filling with sand or a torch that lights up the whole area. (Sommers would also reuse that one for “The Mummy.”) Honestly, it's pretty clear that “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was a huge influence on Sommers. He draws from some of that energy with this one.

The director's visual skills continue to evolve. “The Jungle Book” features some of the same excesses he showed in “Huck Finn” but they are better used. A scene where Mowgli runs in slow motion, tears streaming down his face, probably would've been utterly ridiculous. Yet the it somehow works here, perhaps thanks to Lee's performance. Sommers also peppers the film with wipe transition, another deliberate homage to classic matinee cinema. Overall, “The Jungle Book” is excellently shot and edited. This movie also marks the first time the director would use CGI. It's briefly used to bring Kaa to life, who has been recast as an anaconda that has magically transported itself to India.

Some of Sommers' narrative trademarks become apparent here as well. Primarily, his love of gratuitous foreshadowing. In the opening scene, a man picks up a playing card showing a tiger. Seconds later, Shere Khan appears. Around the same time, a young Mowgli explains a dream he had, where he is linked with a tiger. Naturally, he comes face-to-face with Shere Khan – who functions more as a plot device than an antagonist here – before the story is up. Long before Mowgli and Boone becomes enemies, they have a conversation discussing the possibility that the Captain might someday hunt him. The last act, with the giant snake and room full of treasure, is essentially a reprise of an earlier scene. It's maybe not the cleanest way to write but, you know, it satisfies. The dots connect in a comforting way.

“The Jungle Book” also has the benefit of a fantastic score. The great Basil Poledouris handles the music. He includes lots of sweeping themes, powerful waves of strings that wash over the audience. This establishes the film's period setting and also the sense of adventure. When paired with large shots of flowing waterfalls or jungle trees, it really grabs an epic feeling. He also fills the soundtrack with sounds that hint at the jungle setting, clicking and rattling. There's a flavor of exoticism too, with mysterious sounding woodwinds and hollow drumming. While not the composer's most memorable scores, it's a very strong piece of music that elevates the film.

This “Jungle Book” would quickly become a favorite in my boyhood household. I watched it just as much as the animated version, if not more. The cute animals appealed to my mom, the hunky guys appealed to my sister, and I liked the well-executed adventure. (And my mom is still annoyed that Disney has never reissued the film and used copies go for way too much on-line.) I even played the point-and-click computer game, though I suspect that iteration doesn't hold up too way. For the most part, Sommers' “Jungle Book” is just as entertaining now as it was then. It's a really fun adventure flick. It would set up the framework that the director would continue to follow throughout his career. [Grade: B+]

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