The bear necessities of life have changed dramatically in the half century between versions of "The Jungle Book" movie.
Walt Disney's original "The Jungle Book" was released in 1967 at the dawn of the environmental movement. Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," exposing the toxic side of the pesticide industry, had been published in 1962. Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970, the same year the Environmental Protection Agency was founded. Greenpeace came into being the year after that.
Almost a half century later, these institutions long ago migrated into mainstream culture. The EPA is both a political punching bag and environmental savior. Earth Day is a global phenomenon, and Greenpeace just launched an investigative journalism unit, having firmly planted its sights on combating climate change.
Over the same period, "The Jungle Book," originally based on a collection of stories by English author Rudyard Kipling, has remained an enduring classic. And as happens with almost every consumable cultural commodity, the time for a re-envisioning has arrived. In this instance, the case must be especially compelling, as two hollywood remakes are in store over the next two years. First, Disney’s live action version, directed by "Iron Man" director Jon Favreau, will be released in early 2016 (Fusion is partly owned by ABC, a member of the Disney family). A year later, Warner Bros. will be putting out "Jungle Book: Origins."
On Tuesday, the first trailer for Disney's reboot was released, and my how times have changed—and not just the night and day difference in animation technology. The original trailer, clocking in at a meandering 3:41, is a bucolic experience, from the beginning where Baloo hums "Doo-be-do-be-doo" to the final minute, primarily occupied by King Louie the orangutan's sing along 'I Wanna Be Like You.' Even the scene with Kaa, the hypnotic python, is subdued and—in true 60s form—trippy. While Mowgli may be in danger, the jungle seems to be providing for him in an entertaining fashion. The Animal Kingdom appears to be in a state of relative harmony.
Forty years ago, a classic this did make. In 2015, it takes a lot more to captivate an audience—and nature is no longer so inviting or harmonious.
The first ten seconds of dramatic camera shots in the new trailer could just as well be promoting the newest "Jurassic Park" film. Then Scarlet Johansson’s voice jumps in, immediately transporting the viewer even further into the future with its eery similarity to Spike Jonze's near-future film "Her," in which she appears as a disembodied voice. Johansson is the voice of Kaa in Favreau's remake, but this isn't revealed until the end of the trailer.
Johansson asks Mowgli, as he stands alone in a dark tangle of ominous foliage, "what are you doing so deep in the jungle? Don't you know what you are?"
And just like that the collegial nature of the original is overpowered for good in what amounts to 1:35 of man, or “mancub," versus nature. For a good chunk in the middle it seems like a promo for the next "Planet of the Apes".
The last few seconds of the trailer remind us of the Jungle Book's origins with a quick shot of Mowgli and Baloo floating down a river, whistling. Then it is over.
Even the elephants in the new trailer are fearsome, and one would be hard pressed to blame Mowgli for running away to the nearest urban hub—never to experience true nature again, except perhaps on the big screen. This is a stark contrast to the original trailer, in which the ensemble come together in song, the text on screen reading "who needs people?"
Of course this is only the trailer, and trailers must be captivating and hyperbolic. The competition for eyes, just like survival in "The Jungle Book", was far less competitive in 1967 than in 2015, and the trailer does its job of enticing me to want to see the film. But it is also a full-throttled reminder of how far removed we are from Mother Nature, and the type of extreme imagery it takes to draw us back under her spell.
A new version of "The Jungle Book" could easily have pitted Mowgli and friends against the unrelenting encroachment of human development and all its side effects, from wildlife trafficking to climate change. Maybe I am just thinking of "Ferngully," the 1992 animated film about rainforest destruction. Even that movie seems extremely dated by this point.
As humankind drives wild tiger populations to the brink of extinction, all we really want to see is an action sequence of a tiger giving chase to an abandoned child (watch the trailer). "The Jungle Book" remake could very well be a great piece of entertainment; one we are increasingly leaving behind in favor of a human-dominated existence.