The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane was wrong in his supercilious review of The Jungle Book to ask “What art?” Despite early development doubts by fans, Jon Favreau was able to produce a remake that improves upon its ancestors with gorgeous direction, easy pacing, and a faultless and diverse cast, and, in doing so, he showed a new breadth of potential for child-directed cinema.
Yet, Lane claims that CGI offers none of the humanity or charm that the original Disney movie or Rudyard Kipling’s novel did, as though they are in some way better by the blessing of their medium alone. This is a pointlessly fetishist stance to take. All art, whether you like it or not, can’t escape the bounds of being simulacra. It’s only real insofar as your emotional response can take it. It’s aesthetics one-oh-one.
If emotions be the qualification for realness, the wish of many other critics to reach forward and touch the jungle on-screen is telling. Favreau’s Jungle Book is an outstanding piece of mainstream cinema, and, what’s more, is offers every level of brilliance, from expressive models and an uncynical script for children to well-voiced, self-doubting characters for adults. This multi-tiered summary of the film’s high quality – alas, a non-exhaustive summary it must be – is an index of how this film manages to be a children’s film par excellence.
The fact that it has attractions for those in every age bracket has a threefold advantage. The first of these is that is demonstrates an awareness of the film industry at what software developers call the end-user level. Who takes children to see films? Adults do. The more attractive you make it to adults, the more offspring you will get going to see your film. This means more of both parties will pull in more of both parties and so on and so on. It’s a knock to the idea that there’s no profit in thoughtful productions.
Secondly, it introduces the element of family communality into the cinema-going experience and vice versa. Going to the cinema is an opportunity for families to engage their children with a cultural, emotional, and perhaps even formative experience and then discuss it with them. A parent might wish to ask their child about what they liked about the film or didn’t, to which they might learn to give a developed response and reveal new elements of their character. Or, in some cases, the child might ask their parents an unsolicited question about more mature themes, like, for example, why Shere Khan would want to seek vicarious vengeance against Mowgli.
This phenomenon can also yield socially progressive results. If a young boy was to watch David Yates’ Tarzan and, with pre-adolescence honesty, express that Alexander Skarsgård was handsome, it would be an opportunity for his parents to encourage comfort with such discussion.
There can even be some positive action in return. Disney has only begun to blemish the veneer of whitewashed decades because unrepresented children, who discussed their ill-feeling with family and friends, grew into coherently irritated adults. As a result, we now have a Disney that illustrates the beauty of cultures beyond the privileged, albeit it with some questionable execution.
In July, an episode of Nickelodeon’s The Loud House featured the network’s first same-sex married couple with a child. This follows a slow burgeon on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon from shows of just heterosexual normativity over the past decade. And who produced these shows? Those who saw cartoons in the generation before and were left wanting for representation. This proves that shows are in dialogue with their elders, much in the same way their young viewers are best in conversation with theirs. It’s a satisfying echo, but it does leave you wondering where this leaves the filmmaker. For a moment.
The answer, as it becomes quickly apparent, comes from the dialectic nature of good children’s films of which The Jungle Book is a grand case. All a director must do is fuel chatter between every age without compromising a coherent narrative. Rich characters, delicate pacing, realistic dialogue, thematically drawn visuals, and ethical ambivalence: they all offer families the chance to talk about life and art.
In this respect, CGI is actually a facilitating agent. CGI extends the possibilities of what the screen can show, thus it extends the bounds of what can be discussed. Even abstract visuals serve up the subject of uncanniness. Does Mr Lane suppose the sequences featuring florid fire in The Jungle Book would be as effective on hand-drawn frames?
Favreau honed to a higher level the act of entertaining and engaging with children with his latest film. In doing so, he and his sizeable team pulled off two remarkable stunts. First, they stared down the slack producers and elitists alike that claim pandering is the only way to please everybody. Second, they reminded us what matters most when we take our little ones to the big screen. That’s hardly artless.