Nostalgia Critic is Wrong About ‘The Jungle Book (2016)’

Doug misunderstands a lot of this movie even though it's written to be understood by children.

For almost ten years, Channel Awesome has found varying degrees of success as a content aggregator site, which essentially means that it hosted lots of different YouTube reviewers, all shouting about movies or comics or lamps or whatever. Over the last few weeks, all those content creators have voiced their grievances and the whole place now seems to be on fire.

It would be ludicrous to attempt to properly summarise all the accusations made against CEO Mike Michaud, as the document famously runs for more than sixty pages. The broad strokes are that there was a pervasive sexist culture, mismanagement and incompetence reached levels reminiscent of Wiseau, and a lot of people were getting pressured into a lot of ‘voluntary’ work.

My rule with trash-talking people on the internet is that they must have done something morally wrong rather than just making bad videos or whatever. I never trashed Game Theory’s ‘Sans’ Secret Identity’ video, for example. So, in a way, it’s nice that Doug Walker has turned out to be a jerk because now I can finally complain about Nostalgia Critic.

Is this making light of a serious situation? A little, yes. But, I think now is a good time to touch on how he never really and truly knew what the heck he was talking about.

I wouldn’t care about this if I never liked Nostalgia Critic. The dude knows how to get a laugh and some of his framing devices have been inspired, especially where the Hyper Fangirl character is involved. But, each video necessarily hinges on his opinion of the movie he’s reviewing, opinions which often make strange errors which seem to be the result of a rushed production schedule. So, let’s look at his recent review of the 2016 CGI-heavy Jungle Book.

Doug, as the Critic, opens the review by jokingly contrasting the childishness of the Disney animated classic version with Rudyard Kipling’s original stories. Playing it up for effect, he mentions the book’s theme of “the coming-of-age balance between trying to belong yet also trying to stand out.” Just flagging that one up at the start, remember it for later.

First off, the Critic criticises (arf!) the movie’s opening, which is different from the other versions. The two other versions of note start with Mowgli being adopted by the wolves as an infant. Here, we first meet Mowgli as a young boy at the age he’ll be for the rest of the movie, then the origin is flashed back to later. The Critic has a point here about how the story is told out of order for no reason and how that results in a glut of exposition up front. While I’m saying something nice, I’ll concede that he has a few valid complaints, most notably the clumsy friendship break-up and the changed ending.

What makes less sense is the assertion that the different opening has nothing new or worthwhile to offer. Mowgli is trying to outrun his mentor Bagheera but can’t quite manage. Bagheera chastises him for going up a dead tree; wolves don’t hide in trees, he says, and a wolf would recognise a dead tree anyway. “I realise you weren’t born a wolf but could you at least act like one?” he says. This leaves Mowgli sombre.

The scene is directly mirrored by a similar scene at the end of the movie where Mowgli is the mentor figure to younger cubs. He can now keep pace with the wolves by use of his ‘tricks,’ which are what the animals call his decidedly human behaviours like making small inventions. The point of these two scenes written to be understood by children is that at the start, Mowgli is a human but Bagheera wants him to act like a wolf. In the end, he’s allowed to act like a human and play to his strengths. All of this is dismissed by the Critic as “talk about trees” indicating that the opening has nothing new to offer.

What’s more, through a contrived comparison to US Marshalls, the Critic says that this opening doesn’t tie into the rest of the movie; “a lot of shitty films do that.” It’s true that a lot of films do open with scenes that don’t have much to do with the rest of the plot. But, as is the case here, that’s often because those openings are setting up the characters, world, and themes. A great example is As Good as it Gets, which opens with Jack Nicholson throwing his neighbour’s dog down a garbage chute. The dog isn’t very important to the plot but straight away, we know everything we need to know about our main character. This Jungle Book is similar. Obviously, it gives us a great sense of the setting and the characters. Apparently, what’s less obvious is that it sets up what the movie is about at the outset.

This is another reason Doug’s dismissal of this whole opening is strange; at the start of his own video, he talked about Kipling’s original novel and its theme of trying to belong but trying to stand out. The movie version he’s reviewing opens by introducing that very theme, albeit a little clumsily, and he never even remarks on it.

The review seems committed to the take that this movie is just melting the two other famous versions together: “It tries to mix the movie and the book by focusing on their least effective elements while leaving out what made the other version so memorable.”

This sounds like a plausible enough take until you look at what the Critic says about Shere Khan. Apparently, it’s unreasonable that a villainous tiger would be well-spoken and unkempt at the same time; this describes most debaters I know, never mind an actual wild animal.

More important than that is the Critic’s total bafflement over Shere Khan’s motivation even though it’s the same as his motivation in the original text. In Kipling’s book, Shere Khan wants to kill Mowgli because he’s afraid that he will grow into a man, come back, and kill them. In this movie, it’s the very same. One of Shere Khan’s first lines is “Does my face not remind you of what a grown man can do?”

Let’s zoom out a little here. I mentioned already that Mowgli’s ‘tricks’ represent his humanity. A symbol throughout the movie for the dark side of his humanity is fire, known to the animals as ‘the red flower.’ This represents the potential for destruction in Mowgli’s humanity and gives a gentle nudge to our real-world impact on the planet’s biodiversity. The symbol comes to a head in the third act when Mowgli brings a torch from the human village into the jungle and accidentally starts a huge fire.

When Shere Khan sees this, he begins to gloat. “Always a proud day when they come of age,” he says. “I am the one who saw your future. I saw what you’d become.” You can’t get much more direct than that. It’s the same motivation and character as in the original book.

Again, the Critic describes Shere Khan’s motivation from the book but seems totally baffled by his role in this movie. He touches on some perceived plot quibbles about the villain initially sticking to the Law of the Jungle until he doesn’t get what he wants, at which point he kills the leader of the wolves and assumes command. The way this plotting is laid out is, again, a little clumsy – you could describe a lot of this movie as clumsy – but it’s not outright inconsistent; Shere Khan doesn’t want to break the Law straight away. If there’s a peaceful option that avoids a lot of trouble, he’ll take it. But, if there isn’t, he’ll do what it takes to achieve what, from his perspective, needs to be done.

This isn’t exactly as good as Kipling, as if anyone expected it to be. But, in the scene where the tiger kills the wolf leader, they don’t shy away from this apparent contradiction of terms; it’s the context that gives Shere Khan’s action more impact. So, it’s unfair to say that it doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s also unfair to say that “it doesn’t matter because Mowgli’s out of the jungle anyway! There’s no threat!” After all, Mowgli could always just… walk back… the way he came.

This next point is a bit trivial but I ask you to bear with me. There are two songs in the movie, ‘Bare Necessities’ and ‘I Wanna Walk Like You.’ Like many more serious reviewers, the Critic says that the movie would have been more streamlined without the songs; after all, if you’re going to be a musical, just go ahead and be a proper musical, right? Where Doug trips up is saying that ‘I Wanna Walk Like You’ is the only musical number outright, insisting that ‘Bare Necessities’ didn’t count because it didn’t technically convey information in the way that musical numbers are supposed to.

Regarding the rules of musicals, such as they are, I’ll take him in good faith here and assume he’s not entirely making this up since he has experience. But, it’s not as if the ‘Bare Necessities’ scene is like in Juno where two characters just sing a song the way normal people sing songs. The Critic says that it’s just two characters singing a song that they know; this really isn’t the case. Check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me. There’s an instrumental and everything. It was entirely in the spirit of a musical number and to say that it doesn’t technically count seems awfully pedantic. I wouldn’t spend so much time on this except the Critic sure did.

Those are all the main things wrong with the video, so we don’t even have to go into the small stuff like the clip from the Super Mario Bros movie which is only there as a reference rather than as a coherent joke.

It seems that Doug Walker and his co-writer and brother Rob had a good understanding of the original book. But, when the time came to spot the film’s new spin on the book’s ideas, they usually missed the point. This is strange because the film is hardly subtle.

Again, for all Doug gripes about the perceived stupidity of this “grown-up version,” it’s meant to be watched and understood by children. I’m no mind-reader but it seems that they didn’t pay very close attention.

One comment

  1. It’s nice to hear your perspective on it. I personally didn’t like the film, but my reasons are a bit different from Doug’s.


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