I saw The Jungle Book at a 9:15 pm show last night. I didn't laugh at the jokes, some of which were Pixar-level clever, and I wasn't moved by the deaths of any of the heroes. I spent most of the movie admiring the lush scenery which recalled the multiplanar camera effects of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Every leaf in the film existed in an ambiguous space between the two- and three-dimensional. I felt the way I feel when I go hiking in the mountains in the Pacific Northwest where my city boy's sense of depth and proportion is upset by new landscapes. But I barely connected to the narrative.
The Jungle Book will be remembered as one of the major CGI touchstones, alongside The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Avatar, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The animal heroes occupy a position very high on the reality meter, like lightly touched-up photographs. But the animators' approach to the animals is different than that of the screenplay's and voice actors'. Christopher Walken's Colonel Kurtz impression comes from his voice, but even though it shouldn't, it feels at odds with the enormous orangutan's lazy pose, suggestive of brutality and appetite. I can listen to Idris Elba's voice all day long, but it hardly lends Shere Khan any more menace than already exists in the tiger's lurch. These voices are human, and the animals' bodies, created by animators guided by what must have been a million hours of research, are not.
From my layman's understanding, animals have emotional lives as complex as ours. But it's still so easy for us to kill and eat them, and even if we happen to be vegetarians, to accept that we have friends who kill and eat them. Why? They don't express their emotions with their eyes, or their mouths. As far as humans are concerned, they wear masks. The most terrifying moment of the film came when Walken's King Louie emerges from the shadows and reveals his stoical, impassive, glass-eyed face. I may know that animals feel a riot of jealousy, sorrow, rage, love, and grief, but it's never that apparent to me. And as much as I know they may feel these ranges of emotion, I remain convinced, whether I'm right or not, that the quality of their jealousy, sorrow, rage, love, and grief can't be the same as my own, that it has to be different.
Maybe the uncanny valley exists in my lived experience outside the movie theater, in a zoo or in a walk through nature. I see all these creatures with consciousnesses so similar to mine but for a few small differences, and faces so like mine, except for their inability to express our common emotional inheritance.