11/12/2016

The Jungle Book - The Bare Necessities

Thoughts On: The Jungle Book


Mowlgi, a boy abandoned in the jungle as a baby to be raised by wolves, is coerced back to a man village.


The Jungle Book is a simple and joyous film. In sitting down and actually re-watching this film after quite some years I was, however, struck by the aesthetics. I always imagined certain aspects of the film, Mowgli primarily, as being more detailed. That is not to say that the backdrops to this film aren't stunning, just that my younger mind must have filled in gaps or added an imagined layer of detail to this film. I'm not sure if that speaks to the unreliability of memory or just the tone of the film, but, in staying on point, let's say it's the tone of the movie. And in such, I mean to suggest that, because of the great tone and feel of the story, this film had an immersive effect on a younger me, one that drew me into the movie to a point of literal engagement; one that allowed me to see a film that wasn't entirely there. This then speaks to the whole idea of childhood movies for me. What re-watching this film suggests to me about cinema is that it has a capacity to act as a mere canvas to a younger mind. Such seems to be true of the world in general, however. Everything seems to have been greater (or at least incredibly different) when we were younger; most probably because our outlook was more naive and optimistic than it is now. Nonetheless, there's something rather unnerving about the malleability of reality under such terms. But, without getting to deep into the existentials of that, let's focus on character. In my seeing Mowgli as lacking detail, I mean to say that there's not as much character in his design as I otherwise thought - especially when comparing him to any of the other animals. In fact, this seems to be something of a trend in animated features...




When played against non-human characters, people often seem to pale in character. The reason why isn't really down to artists doing a bad job of projecting them though. The reason comes down to us as humans have a good eye for those like us. When we see something off in what is meant to be a representation of ourselves, it sticks out like a sore thumb. And, because we're not panthers, bears or orangutans, when we see animals and the non-human that are a little off, we do not react in the same way. That is to say, we don't pick up on the details that aren't true to reality. Whilst this seems to suggest that human characters need great detail to work in animated films, this is not the case. We only need to take a peep at Disney's Tarzan to see why...


There is something incredibly natural and balanced about this frame. There isn't the same degree of balance, to my eye, in this...


This is a very nit-picky and detailed criticism, but an interesting one nonetheless. If you look at Mowgli's face, you see a lack of character; there's something incredibly distinct about Bagheera and Baloo's features, but not Mowlgi's. Again, this could be my human bias towards a greater scrutiny of people's faces, but, take another look at the shot from Tarzan:


There is an abundance of character and nuance in the features of both Jane and Tarzan here. There isn't an attempt towards hyper-realistic, or as-realistic-as-possible, animation here, like you would see in Toy Story 3...


... but there is a style of animation that is both close enough and distant enough from 'human' to project a good sense of character in Jane and Tarzan. The details to which art on this level works, I really can't explain. I wish I knew art and animation better so that I could begin to explain how and where character works its way into these faces, but I can only leave you with the observation that there's something of character missing from Mowgli's design. That is to say, he lacks personal characteristics that distinguish him as a individual in the film.

That said, what I want to talk about with The Jungle Book is what fuels the great tone that this movie has. From scene to scene, song to song, The Jungle Book has a sustained tone of levity and bubbling childishness. In such, the film really pulls us into a world defined by its own cinematic rules. Cinematic Rules are something we got into in the last post in the Disney Series, so check it out here if you've not read it. But, to recap briefly, cinematic rules are artistic terms or parameters constructed by having a great control over themes and a narrative message. With The Jungle Book we see an incredibly strong set of cinematic rules. The evidence for this lies in the opening to the film. We start with a baby abandoned in a jungle. The baby cries, a jaguar talks to us and then takes said baby to be raised by wolves. We do not blink an eye despite the insanity of such an event. This speaks to the profoundly expressive nature of animated films that cannot be captured by live-action, traditional cinema (a topic covered in the last post) but, more directly to the concept of cinematic rules. The opening of the film not only says to us as an audience that animals can speak, that they are conscious and humanly moral beings, but that this is a narrative where the world is a forgiving place. The tone of this is, quite obviously, antithetical to the reality of the surrounding setting (a jungle), and thus we have the crux of the movie demonstrated by the opening. The central point of The Jungle book is to say that everything can be all right - if you let it be. The evidence for this is in the title of the post and the most famous mantra of the film: Look For The Bare Necessities. Baloo's song isn't just a nice piece of narrative entertainment, however. It's justified in the plot by its purpose of convincing Mowgli that he is to stay in the jungle. The song then speaks to Mowgli on a somewhat philosophical level that says: chill, man, cool it. What is at the centre of the movie is then this idea of a slope of least resistance. This concept is much like the term 'path of least resistance' but without the implied task of having to walk.


Just as Baloo and Mowgli slid into the river and let it float, they mean to let life take them where they comfortably slot. This seems like liberal hubris, something that the likes of Bagheera would scorn at for being impractical and silly...


... but, this simple idea of The Bare Necessities is what defines this entire narrative and has both Baloo and Bagheera dancing off to its tune in the end.


To explain why this idea fuels the narrative and character arcs of this film, we need to pull back to the beginning of the story. Mowgli, as a boy raised by wolves, lives by a natural pattern of things - one outside of human contortion. Without delving into the lack of logistical details of this, it's implied that this natural flow has Mowgli want to stay in the jungle. There's two sides of subtext to this. The first is simply that Mowgli has found his niche in the world. The second links nicely back to the beginning of the essay and childhood perceptions. A huge part of this narrative is about a pubescent awakening. That is to say that Mowlgi stops being a child when Shere Khan shows up. In this, he is made to face the realities of the jungle, the fact that there are things that want to kill him out there. The journey this sets Mowgli on is not only one to find a new flow of things, a new place in the world, but a search for a father-figure or guiding idol. Such is the significance of Bagheera, Baloo and Mowgli's other encounters under the guise of friendship. Each character adds something pivotal to Mowgli's character arc. Bagheera plants the idea of Mowgli belonging to people and in the man village. The vultures teach him about friends being there when you fall (the pun belying that being that vultures then peck at that fallen corpse). Kaa teaches Mowgli of trust - and who not to trust. The elephants teach him of places he doesn't strictly fit. King Louie teaches him of his humanity - his proverbial capacity to make fire. Shere Kahn teaches him about courage found via naivety. All of these ideas interweave in Mowgli's character. They drive him to him, in large part, to act. The negative or shocking lessons Mowgli learns have him run, shout and pine...


Other more positively interpreted lessons have Mowgli dance, find friends or fight back...


The essence of all of these lessons is their ability to have Mowgli draw further into the jungle or recede from it - both physically and mentally. But, what brings all of these lessons together and ties the film in a bow is what Baloo teaches Mowgli...


Despite being torn in multiple directions by his many encounters, Mowgli retains a subscription to this idea of Bare Necessities, a.k.a, The Slope Of Least Resistance. What this demonstrates is the idea's complexities and its lack of liberal hubris. 'The Bare Necessities' isn't just something Baloo says before he slips into a river or eats some ants, it's what defines his character as he smuggles Mowgli from King Louie or fights Shere Kahn. In such, The Bare Necessities of Life include friendship, social ties and a sense of compassion or love. What we have here are two parts of a hippie trifecta: a simple life and love. Add some drugs and the trifecta is complete...




... we won't delve deeper on that one. But, back to The Bare Necessities, the philosophy this movie develops is of being and doing what you feel is right and, when its not dire, easy. This means not going out of your way to be happy, but also going out of your way to sustain your baseline sense of joy.


What's then so great about The Jungle Book is its capacity to fully embody this philosophy and narrative meaning. What this means is that because this film has such a feel-good and emotionally poignant message, it has such a great tone; one define by levity and joy. This is all of course done through a manipulation of cinematic rules. We're made to believe a boy can grow up with wolves, that he can survive in the jungle, all before learning his place in the world.


And so, just as we sink into the beat of Baloo's song, we also align ourselves with Mowgli's character arc as he slips into the beat of maturation and change. With the end of The Jungle Book, we're then truly made to feel its message to look for the bare necessities, as does Mowgli, as does Bagheera and Baloo.

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