Synopsis: Mowgli the man-cub, raised by a wolf pack, flees a tiger with help from a bear and a panther.
Disney animated films have been delighting — and sometimes scaring– children since Snow White. Troupes of writers and animators work behind-the-scenes to create movie magic. Today’s CGI and VFX let film makers showcase scenery and animals that are nearly indistinguishable from live action photography.
Banking on a proven commodity, Disney offers a live-action The Jungle Book starring Neel Sethi as Mowgli. And, yes, some children must work, so that other children can enjoy themselves at the cinema. And therein lies the tale of a child actor and his boss, director Jon Favreau. But first, the actual movie…
As we all know from the 1967 animated The Jungle Book, young Mowgli has been raised by wolves, but in order for his pack to be spared punishment from the human-hating tiger Shere Khan, he must leave the jungle to go to live in a ‘Man-Village.’ Mowgli loves his family and his life in the jungle; he has no desire to live among people.
The movie provides a moving flashback to show us how he was orphaned as a toddler. The little cutie was found by Bagheera the panther and brought to a maternal wolf. Ok, I can maybe believe that the carnivores didn’t kill him. What I cannot believe is that the red trousers the baby was wearing were re-fashioned into a loin cloth and have stayed intact for ten years of running and climbing. In any event, Mowgli, fearing for his family, agrees to leave with his indestructible undies and travel with Bagheera to a Man-Village.
Neel Sethi gives a sweet and naturalistic performance as Mowgli. In an Independent interview, young Neel reflected on his erstwhile normal life which included going to school and playing with friends. Soon though, Neel’s normal life would go up in smoke thanks to director Jon Favreau. Being cast in The Jungle Book must have seemed like a dream come true. But instead of gamboling through a mock up of a jungle, Neel would find himself on sound stages in LA. There he would be forced to
eke out a performance in front of green and blue screens, scrambling over foam blocks and forever sprinting from imaginary jungle beasts. Describing his director-enforced break from reality, Neel concedes (in an interview with Rajeev Masand) that at first it was strange acting with no one, but then he got used to it. Alone in this imaginary land it is easy to see how Neel came to see Favreau as “like my guru.” In what reads like a therapist’s notes, Neel describes the cult-like atmosphere created on-set where at one point he was covered with mud, then sprayed with cold water. He testified that, horrifyingly, the director even got into large animal puppets at times. All the better to blur the boy’s understanding of reality and persuade him of Favreau’s shape-shifting powers.
Watch for the scene when Mowgli floats down the river with Baloo the bear. Neel probably hoped for a day’s shoot at a local water park’s lazy river. But no, Favreau had other ideas. Instead the boy would be isolated on a sterile sound stage outfitted with a tank of water. To add insult to injury, Neels reports that Favreau entered the water to splash him.
We viewers have it easy because we get to just enjoy the film magic onscreen: Mowgli’s majestic wolf family, his fastidious protector, Bagheera the panther, Baloo the bear (voiced by Bill Murray in an original interpretation every bit as good as the original), menacing tiger Shere Khan and the jungle itself. All beautifully and richly conveyed via VFX artistry.
Leaving the theater, I told myself that young Neel, now free of Favreau’s clutches, was back to a normal childhood. And maybe it was all worth it because as he said to a journalist, “I’m not in school. I don’t get to see my friends. But I’m in a movie.” The mantra, no doubt, given to him by puppet master, Jon Favreau.