Dinosaurs are by far the largest and most spectacular creatures ever to walk this earth. Consider the magnificent Brontosaurus; up to 90 feet and 35 tons worth of saurian majesty. Elongated neck on one side, whip like tail on the other, legs like pillars of an ancient temple in between. As for the color of its scaly hide, or the sound of its long-lost calls, those will sadly remain unknown. But even those must surely have added to the impact of seeing this animal alive and in the flesh, something that we in our lifetimes will surely never see.
The closest we can get is resurrecting such creatures in the world of cinema with visual effects. Even if the effect is only a facsimile, surely even that would evoke something of the awe and wonder of what it would feel like to see a living (non-bird) dinosaur . Or at least, that’s what I was hoping when I went into the theater in June 2015 to see the latest installment in the Jurassic Park franchise, Jurassic World.
And yet, as I sat in the theater, I was left utterly untouched. The creatures – lumbering codes of binary all colored the same shade of grey – felt unreal. Was it that they seemed unfazed by the laws of physics? Was it that they looked like every generic dinosaur from every kids dinosaur book ever cranked out of a big publishing house? Was it because the dinosaurs weren’t at all influenced by the latest scientific findings, and so could never possibly come close to channeling the aesthetic power of reality?
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the supposed living dinosaurs left no impact on me as either an audience member, nor as someone who has always been fascinated by the natural world. No, I’d have to wait little less than a year before I’d get to feel that.
In September of 2015, I saw that Disney was planning on releasing a trailer for an upcoming live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book. Until then, I was only even tangentially aware that The Jungle Book even existed. I had never read the book, and Disney’s 1967 animated version didn’t really stand out to me compared to some of the studio’s other animated works. Nonetheless, as someone who loves animals, I gave it a watch.
That night, I read the entirety of Rudyard Kipling’s original text as well as its sequel, The Second Jungle Book. I rewatched the Disney 60s version, as well as the more faithful rendition done by Chuck Jones. I became enraptured with the world of the Jungle, and with the creatures and characters that inhabited it. Why you ask?
Because it was immediately apparent to me that the filmmakers were inspired by the awe inspiring beauty of the natural world. Even on my smart phone, it struck me how life-like the animals looked in the first trailer, how much detail there was in their movements and design, as well as the design of the world around them. Whereas Jurassic World decided to ignore the scientific reality of its digital stars, The Jungle Book embraces it. Reality inspired it.
And now I have seen The Jungle Book in full at an IMAX 3D theater. It was beyond proper description. It was everything I hoped for. I felt lost in the depths of the jungles of India, running with wolves, prowling with panthers and chilling with bears. The fact that these could talk did nothing to ruin the effect. It seemed that animals had always talked, and I had just forgotten. The sight of a black leopard exchanging blows with a Bengal tiger threw me back in my seat, gasping with wide eyes. I wanted to bow with Mowgli and Bagheera as a herd of Indian elephants lumbered by. I think I will always hold a special place in my heart for a character I will refer to simply as Comedy Relief Pangolin.
Much has been made of the power of the CGI in this film, responsible for everything on-screen with the exception of Neel Sethi’s Mowgli. And I can declare that every single word of praise is well-earned. Kudos to every design artist, every animator and every renderer. But part of what makes the result so powerful is how much inspiration is drawn from the natural world. There are so many obscure species to tickle the fancy of any zoologist. The aforementioned Pangolin, the Indian giant squirrel, the Indian giant flying squirrel, the critically endangered pygmy hog, Indian hornbills, civets, nilgai, and so many more, each of them rendered and animated with tender loving care.
King Louie’s species has even been changed from a geographically misplaced orangutan to a late surviving Gigantopithecus, an extinct orangutan that did live in India until a hundred thousand years ago. And even just down to the tiniest details – the way Shere Khan lays down on a rock, the way the elephants flap their ears when they’re irritated, the way Baloo’s muscles and fur jiggle slightly with every step he takes. Forget the lazily constructed CGI creations that seem to be flooding our theaters – every nucleus of every cell of every leaf of every twig of every limb of every branch of every tree in the jungle is given the perfect amount of attention to make it look like it’s really there, right in front of you.
That’s not to say that this film is 100% zoologically accurate. Baloo is supposed to be a sloth bear, but looks more like a brown bear. Some of the creatures don’t live in India, such as the adorably weird long-eared jerboa, and others might live in India, but they might not all live in the same parts of India (it is a pretty big sub-continent, after all). Most of the animals are slightly oversized, most obviously King Louie, who – even as a giant, prehistoric orang relative – is about twice the size of his real-life counterpart. Kaa the python is also supersized compared to any snake that has ever lived on this planet. Even Louie’s species change raises questions, such as how and why an extinct ape is wandering the jungle of modern India. And any birders in the audience will suffer the eternal bane of bird-watching movie goers the world over: bird calls from birds that live half a world away.
But none of that changes the fact that the filmmakers did their research and drew a huge amount of artistic inspiration from what they learned and saw. It provides the foundation for the film’s entire aesthetic makeup. What they get wrong feels infinitely minor compared to what they got right. And ultimately, this is what allows them – and us – to wave away these errors as artistic license. King Louie makes for a far more menacing monarch when he’s nearly the size of Kong. A snake of Kaa’s length and girth would have no trouble fitting the man-cub in her mouth. Louie’s monkey army seems bigger when it’s allowed to include both the Western Hoolock gibbons from India’s Northeast, and the lion-tailed macaques of its Southwest. Here, the artistic license is both earned, and used in service to the film’s power.
By comparison, something like Jurassic World fails utterly. There, the filmmakers took the complete opposite approach. To hell with paleontology. To hell with science. To hell with reality. They threw all of that out the window, and instead gave us totally impotent monsters robbed of their power to mystify and terrify. The reasoning behind this decision was lame at best, and non-existent at worst. Continuity? Infamously absent across the dinosaurs of the entire series. In-universe hand waves about genetic engineering? A lazy afterthought that could just as easily be used to explain changes to the dinosaurs as opposed to keeping them the same. Since when has art ever been about catering to expectations and showing people the same thing they’ve seen a billion times before? You know you’re in trouble when you have to find excuses to do things the wrong way.
Jurassic World has no interest in evoking awe. It doesn’t care about being beautiful. It wants to take you on a superficial trip down memory lane. The whole point is to simply remind you that Jurassic Park is a movie that exists, which it does successfully. But it could have been so much more. Like The Jungle Book, it could have looked at nature and used that as the starting point to create something truly wondrous. It doesn’t even try. It does what’s already been done to death, without a hint of creativity anywhere in its DNA. It’s as dull as the grey, elephantine scaly skin of its dinosaurs.
Many might argue that Jurassic World’s total break from reality is justified as artistic license. It isn’t. Much like having a driver’s license doesn’t excuse one from crashing their car into someone’s house, artistic license doesn’t excuse poor creativity. You can’t invoke it just to keep doing things the same way they’ve already been done, in ways that don’t serve the purpose of your art.
And, like a driver’s license, artistic license has to be earned. The Jungle Book earns its pass because of how much it draws from and references the true natural wonders that lay its foundation. Jurassic World had endless opportunity to do the same, centered as it is on the most incredible group of animals ever to live on this planet. Colin Trevorrow and the studio blew that opportunity.
I felt more terror and power from the tiger, Shere Khan, than I did from the weightless Indominus rex. I sensed more majesty and awe from the sublime elephants than I did from the hollow Brontosaurs. I was more intimidated by Walkens’ singing mega-monkey than I was by Jurassic World’s Tyrannosaurus rex. It is a testament to both the weakness of Jurassic World and the power of The Jungle Book that the mighty dinosaurs end up being dwarfed by our modern mammalian menagerie.
It sometimes feels that art and science stand in opposition to one other, from thin caricatures on kid shows to the ever-popular-but-also-heavily-flawed left brain/right brain dichotomy. In reality, the two very different disciplines can—and I would argue, should—feed each other. It’s not hard to find a scientist working today who can point to any number of sci-fi movies and say ‘that’s where it all began.’ They then go on to make discoveries so amazing that artists around the world can’t help but be inspired. And so the cycle goes on, giving birth to both beauty and knowledge. This a cycle that The Jungle Book understands and continues, but which the Jurassic franchise has sadly forgotten.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story figuratively suggested Gigantopithecus lived “a few thousand years ago”; this has since been changed to more accurately reflect the one hundred thousand year gap.