This year’s Disney remake of its 1967 cartoon classic, The Jungle Book, is an eye-opener. Not only because the CGI pyrotechnics deliver an amazing megabang for your megabucks ($175 million) but because it tell us a lot about how our species has changed its attitude to all the others we share the planet with.
If you compare the new film to the old one, and that one to the Kipling original, you find yourself wrestling a knotty epistemological and ontological conundrum: Are humans like animals or are we fundamentally different? In other words, “Ooo, oo, oobee doo, I wanna be like you-ooo-ooo.”
Go back to the original Jungle Book, published in 1894 – just thirteen years after Darwin’s The Descent of Man – and you’ll meet a very different man-cub than the tousle-haired moppet of the sixties. Victorian Mowgli is an arrogant chap, full of swagger and self-belief from day one, pushing the other wolf cubs aside to get at their mother’s milk.
He taught, not the ways of the wild, but the Laws of the Jungle, by Baloo who – for a bear – has an incredibly stiff upper lip: “Better he should be bruised from head to foot by me who love him than that he should come to harm through ignorance.” Bagheera, the panther, also has a distinctly un-animal-like obsession with rules and regulations, getting Mowgli accepted into the wolf pack on a legal technicality.
It’s pretty obvious that the animals in Kipling’s Jungle Book are not animals at all: no animal has ever been so hide-bound by codes of conduct and moral strictures. They are basically men in wolves’ clothing motivated by uniquely man-made concepts like shame, honour, revenge and loyalty.
Caste also rears its ugly head. Baloo enlightens the man-cub on the correct attitude towards the lower classes: “They have no Law. They are outcastes. They are without leaders. They have no remembrance… We do not drink where the monkeys drink; we do not go where the monkeys go; we do not hunt where they hunt; we do not die where they die.”
King Louie and his troop in the 1960s are more like the jungle’s groovy subculture than its Dalit underclass, their irresponsible monkeying around and all that jazz cocking a snook equally at the patriarchal Bagheera and the toffee-nosed military discipline of Colonel Hathi and his elephant brigade.
Jump-cut to 2016, and we find ourselves in a very different neck of the jungle. This is a vividly, audaciously, staggeringly life-like place. When the battle-scarred man-eater, Shere Khan, jumps down to the water’s edge you can feel the weight, see each ripple of muscle, twitch of whisker, almost – almost – smell the hot, carnivorous breath. The combination of live-action and CGI wizardry has created a world where each leaf, each tendril, each articulated ant-leg is created in incredible moving detail.
But it’s not just the difference in form that strikes you, but the far more complex relationship between the human and the natural world that we currently have. In Victorian England, the ‘natural’ superiority of Man – and in particular white, upperclass men (for, despite appearances to the contrary, Mowgli is just that) – was a given. Now, we are far less sure. We want to claim kinship with animals – the next CGI extravaganza, Tarzan, due to hit our screens next month attests to an enduring love of these ‘wild-men’ stories, children raised by wolves, chimps raised as humans… yet our fellow-feeling with the rest of the planet’s inhabitants has never been more fraught.
We are responsible for the sixth mass extinction in our earth’s history; the World Wildlife Fund’s ‘Living Planet Index’ published in 2014 estimated that half – half – the world’s wildlife has been lost in the last 40 years. As our biodiversity dwindles in the real jungles of the world, we are becoming more and more skilled at creating a convincing simulacra on screen. Not just the same – but enhanced: more beautiful, more vivid, more focused – with none of the inconveniences (mosquitoes, heat, damp, squelchiness) of the real thing. The new Disney vision is Edenic: the lion and the lamb, or the antelope and jackal, drink from the same watering hole. There’s even a seductive snake in the garden, voiced by Scarlett Johanson. And we pay our admission fee, happily, to gaze at ‘nature’ – digitally enhanced, of course – so that we might feel the sensations of awe and wonder that wildlife used to evoke, whilst being saved from the inconvenience of having a ‘real experience’.
The last words of the movie are comforting. Panther and bear look on as the lithe-limbed brown-skinned sun-kissed child and his wolf cub siblings race through the luxuriant and seemingly endlessly abundant playground of vine and branch: “I could get used to this,” says Bagheera. It seems like – tragically – we already have.
first published in The Hindu Business Line, BLink supplement, June 3 2016