All Commentary
Monday, May 16, 2016

The Jungle Book Serves Up a New Cinematic Experience

The power of creativity for the consumer marketplace

If you watch The Jungle Book looking for an intricate plot line, unusual twists, keen political insight, and the like, you will likely be disappointed. It is an old-fashioned story from the late 19th century, and a fun one. But it lacks adult levels of depth and profundity. In this way, it is different from two of my favorite Disney efforts, Frozen and Zootopia, which are stories designed for the mixed demographics of their audiences.

Its subject matter, however, is good for Disney and not just because it hits the sweet spot for kids, tapping into the fear of abandonment and suggesting that humans possess the capacity to make their way in the world regardless of circumstances.

There is a financial consideration too. As with most Disney classics, the book by Rudyard Kipling long ago fell out of copyright, making it fair game for retelling in movies. The newest movie is a live-action remake of the animated 1967 Disney movie that dazzled several generations of children.

Why It’s Amazing

It took me a couple of days fully to process what makes this movie even more amazing than the original. The physical reality of the movie is that none of it was filmed on location. It was filmed entirely in a downtown Los Angeles warehouse, usually with a blue-screen background and only a few props. There was no actual interaction between a boy and animals or even leaves that ended up on camera.

It seems incredible.

As the movie begins we are introduced to Mowgli, the boy raised without parents in the jungle, as he races through trees, runs nimbly along branches, and climbs trunks quickly. It’s delightful but something we are rather used to in terms of cinematic effects.

Anything is possible with computers, right? Sure, but this takes that claim to a new level.

The surprising moment comes early. Mowgli is chased by a black panther, which sounds scary until we hear Bagheera speak. Bagheera is Mowgli’s friend and benefactor. Here is where things get strangely delightful. This panther speaks English, and not awkwardly. It really is speaking, as people speak, with their faces and brows, and his personality shines through.

It’s not mere anthropomorphization that is taking place here. The animal remains true to itself, life-like in every way. It is a real panther. It might as well have been filmed in the wild by National Geographic, except that it speaks and thinks like a human. And yet our brains tell us that this can’t be happening. Real panthers aren’t that expressive, surely. There is far more going on here than merely attaching an audio to a film reel. This is the creation of something completely new.

The Jungle Book illustrates how the current generation is being introduced to an entirely different art form, one that is growing and maturing with each film. It is neither live action nor animation. It is something else entirely, and something more compelling and imaginatively challenging that what is usually called (sometimes disparagingly) CGI (computer generated imagery).

100 Years of Progress

The delivery of dramatic art is an iterative process, one contingent on available technology. For example, I like to think of film as being a modernized recreation of 19th century opera. Opera had it all: music, dancing, beautiful staging, dramatic plots, big stars and so on. Today people think of opera as an art form for snobs. I can’t believe that such people have ever actually attended an opera. Once you do, and if you can imagine yourself back in the 19th century, you immediately see what this is: it is popular entertainment in the most explosive form technologically possible at the time.

Once moving, and then talking pictures became possible, we saw the gradual evolution. A camera records what people are doing. What could be filmed was limited to what people can do, and so Hollywood relied on doubles and stunt actors for dazzlement. Such a limitation is what inspired animation, to create worlds that could not exist in reality. It was beautiful, and still is.

Such were the two types of films for many generations: real people vs. fake people. It’s a clean division. We know which is which. It doesn’t hurt our brains or tax our prevailing sense of reality of what is what. If it is conceptually possible to happen in life, it is filmed; if it is not it is animated.

Something new has emerged over the last decade or so. The Jungle Book is an example of the highest form yet seen on screen. It is neither real nor not-real. Or rather it is both real and not real. For now, this form is called “Live action/CGI.”

It needs a new name. It is too brilliant to languish in such a clumsy word form.

A New World of Film

In The Jungle Book, this new form is not merely exhibited in one scene. It covers the entire movie, which is filled with extremely realistic animals who engage the boy the same as adults would. They teach him, friend him, plot against him, love him, hate him, help him, manipulate him, and so on. He goes along with the wolf pack’s’ demands that he not use human-style “tricks” to make tools and so on, but is pleased that the bear he meets actually encourages his creativity and ingenuity.

For all the plot limitations, this film is a feast for the eyes and the imagination. It blurs the difference between life and fantasy to the point that we are no longer sure what is what. Finally, the viewer gives up and just enjoys the feast.

This new form of art has emerged as a cultural phenomenon but without fanfare or even much public mention. It comes to us in the movie theater as a complete package, whole, ready for consumption, and tested by the marketplace. The way we as consumers experience this belies the underlying truth: this is a massive complex enterprise with thousands of people working to perfect the film frame by frame. The closing credits alone will keep you in your seats an additional 5 minutes, with hundreds of technicians listed.

Each scene requires hundreds of experts, each bringing prior experience and mixing it with what they have learned from others. They are drawing on the crowd-sourced experience of the best in the field to create something never seen before.

The Market Makes Art

It’s hard to imagine that 19th and early 20th century critics said that the market could not create art. It was widely believed that art could only be accomplished by masters and academic experts who live on public support and are guided by men of elite taste.

This is utter rubbish. A film like this makes you realize that the consumer-driven market is capable of inspiring the highest forms of artistic achievement, all in the service of bringing happiness to the multitudes. We don’t have to understand how it was made. We don’t have to take the enormous financial risk. We pay nothing if the film fails at the market. We only need to shell out $10, grab some popcorn, and enjoy the show.

The market makes life good.