Andreas Deja, the animator who would become one of Disney's greatest draftsman, claims that the movie made him want to be an animator after watching it in his home country of Germany when he was a little boy. Without him, we would never have seen his characters King Triton, Gaston, Jafar, Scar, Hercules, Lilo, Queen Narissa, and Mama Odie leap to the screen. All thanks to the whimsical romp in the Seeonee jungle that is most often accredited as being merely "Walt's last film".
I didn't watch the movie until I was about eleven, long after I'd seen the other twenty-plus Disney VHS tapes in our cabinet. Even then, I saw so little of it, because the scenes with Kaa kind of freaked me out. A few years later, I bought the CD soundtrack, complete with an interview with the Sherman Brothers, and I fell in love. I read the book by Rudyard Kipling shortly after, but it took me numerous read-throughs to get it. Today, I say you can keep your "Beauty and the Beast"s, your "Lion Ling"s, your "Little Mermaid"s, your "Alice in Wonderland"s and your "Peter Pan"s. Give me the world of Disney and Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book".
September 15th, 2015, seven months to the day the movie is set to release, director Jon Favreau ("Elf", "Iron Man", "Cowboys and Aliens", "Chef") gave us the first trailer for the movie, and I fell in love faster and harder than Romeo Montague and Gomez Addams combined. But is it enough? Will it prove as good, or even better than the 1967 classic? And will it top the version coming out in 2017, from Warner Brothers, directed by Andy Serkis? Well, let's watch the trailer again here and we'll proceed with a few observations:
1. First, let's discuss the elephant (or rather, giant, mother-lovin' snake) in the room: Scarlet Johansson as Kaa the Python. In the Kipling novel, Kaa is an aged, revered creature. Half-deaf and slightly gruff, he aids Bagheera and Baloo in rescuing Mowgli from the monkey people, though more for the free meal of monkeys. He eventually hypnotized them by dancing a seductive dance, which entrances all but the human. In the following stories, Kaa became a wise and gentle mentor to Mowgli, aiding in some of his more dangerous quests, a close friend and ally.
In the animated version, Kaa is still a dude, voiced by Winnie the Pooh actor, Sterling Holloway. A man whom you ought to explore with the help of that Google Search bar you got there. He became a villain intent on eating the boy, though clumsy and egotistical. His trademark hypnotic spell went from a dance to strobing eye patterns, arguably a more effective use of animation.
Johansson's Kaa is still a villain, it seems. But the the most obvious departure is Kaa being made into a female, easily a choice that raises many questions, not that there's anything wrong or offensive at play here. But it's not unusual: Serkis' version will have Cate Blanchett as their hypnotic snake. Perhaps they're looking for sultry voices, which remains my best and only guess why. In any case, I have nothing against this development (I've grown to love Kaa now), so I remain open-minded and optimistic.
2. At the 47 second mark, we see Mowgli approached by a herd of elephants. What's unusual about this is what we know so little about them.
In Kipling's book, Hathi the elephant is the great and wise elder of the jungle, full of great tales and a noble statesman in formal matters. Like Kaa, Hathi was made into a comic buffoon, Colonel Hathi, a pompous, blustery, forgetful British officer with a minor grudge with humans.
But in the past several months, as we came to hear about the astoundingly talented cast and their respective parts, Hathi was surprisingly absent. It stands to reason he and his herd will not have a large role to play, and we may not hear an all-star voice from him, either. If nothing else, it seems we may be looking at the solemn and dignified version instead the one who forgets to say "halt".
3. There are no other humans in the trailer. Much of Kipling's Mowgli stories are about the mancub and his relationship with the jungle, but the greatest insights are when he faces the superstitions and prejudices of the village, especially when Mowgli stirs the ire of a superstitious hunter named Buldeo. Disney practically invented the "To the Man-village" narrative in their earliest drafts, making it into one coherent story. This means we had to wait for the sequel in 2002 to get that, and it what a crushing disappointment that was.
Like Hathi's minimized presence, it says only that they will not inhabit much of the film's runtime, and they certainly won't be the focus. It is Mowgli's tale, after all. But let's hope we get a halfway decent dive into the human psyche.
4. A fight between Bagheera and Shere Khan? About time! It had always bothered me that while the narrative needed to see Baloo fight off Shere Khan, why was Bagheera absent? At least now he can get a chance to shine and be more than just a Frasier Crane archetype.
5. The size and look of King Louie is terrifying. In the book, the monkeys are the Arkham Asylum of the jungle: a lawless, unfocused, leaderless mass of impulsive and dangerous individuals who cause mischief for fun or attention. The addition of a leader who wanted the secret of fire allowed the animated movie to focus on him and Mowgli, instead of a couple hundred monkeys. He was voiced by Louie Prima, a jazz musician who spent the following few years trying to get in on a few more Disney films, but to no avail.
The movie gives him a more sinister look to, up to and including his aged look and his massive size. Though as imposing as he is, it's clear that he will still be there for comedy, though. Aside from having the name "Louie" amid all the other Hindi names, the King of the Swingers will be voiced by the sometimes terrifying, but almost always hilarious Christopher Walken. The man has spent his career pretending to be human, so this is perfect for the ape who wants to be like you-hoo-hoo. But above all else with Louie, I have just one question:
What is the deal with all those lemons?
6. The animated movie was many things, but not action packed. With Mowgli leaping off cliffs, Bagheera taking on Shere Khan, wildfires breaking out, and hordes of angry monkeys seem to suggest this movie is going to be thrilling, and reminding us this is brought to us by the studio that gave us "Pirates of the Caribbean" suggest this is going to be a very intense movie.
7. The animals look incredible. I was sort of hoping they would retain some exaggerated aspects of the animated versions, like Shere Khan's striking chin, Kaa's googly eyes, or Baloo's grey fur, but I'm just as supportive of this step in realism. Now it's up to their voice actors and the writers to make this movie stand out.
8. If I had any doubts that it wasn't going to be anything at all like the 1967 animated feature, it was dashed in the trailer's final clip. Baloo floating down the river, Mowgli on his stomach, a gentle whistle of "The Bare Necessities"...it was magical. This was the "shut up and take my money" shot.
What do you think? Are you sold? Or do you need more convincing?
Jon Favreau's "The Jungle Book", starring Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Lupita N'yongo, and Giancarlo Esposito hits theaters April 15th.