The Pure Necessity
What would Disney’s animated classic The Jungle Book look like if the animals… behaved like animals? If its bears didn’t burst into song, if jungle cats didn’t turn into comedians, if the apes didn’t ape human behavior? The result would look like The Pure Necessity, Belgian artist David Claerbout’s 2016 reimagining of the 1967 film. This 50 minute video dispenses with Disney’s anthropomorphization: it copies the original’s settings and characters but in this version the animals behave as if they were starring in a nature documentary. A slow cinema nature documentary even, because Claerbout also avoids the storytelling techniques that are rampant in nature documentaries such as David Attenborough’s.
Cause and effect, the bedrock of narration, are discarded. A black panther is in a tree, sleeping… a snake slithers by, and the camera follows this new character on a whim. The sequence in which scenes are strung together seems aleatory: nowhere does this video impose a storytelling logic on its animal subjects. That classic storytelling technique was one of the ways in which the natural world was “colonized” in Disney’s original: by reducing the jungle and its inhabitants to setting and sidekicks for its human protagonist.
There are fleeting moments when we are tricked into believing a narrative might develop. A baby elephant strolls into the frame sporting a somewhat comical haircut (copied from Disney’s original character) and that triggers the sense that a gag or even a musical intermezzo may be coming up. But it turns out we were merely fooled by our own need for causes and effects, for comedy or tragedy. The animals ignore any narrative needs, they are oblivious of the tropes and tricks of (animated) movies and simply amble along. They are blissfully (even wilfully) ignorant of the roles they’re supposed to be playing. The intricate sound design does not even favor the animals in the frame: it forgets to foreground the onscreen animals, instead offering up a soundscape of the jungle as a whole. In this natural universe, the filmmaker didn’t pick any favorites.
The conceptual clarity almost hides just how impressive a technical achievement this video is. A team of 2D animators, under the direction of Claerbout, painstakingly recreated the original (directed by Wolfgang Reitherman). The resulting video travels from museum to art gallery, and I’m certain David Claerbout himself would not primarily consider it a video essay. But it certainly functions as one, since it not only critiques the offhandedly human-centric narration of the Disney film. It also deliberately perverts our expectations (as viewers trained in the continuity style) and it ponders the ways a classic narrative film functions.
Often an animal will freeze, as if it heard or saw something off-screen that we didn’t notice. We are never granted a point of view shot to confirm or contradict this however, since that too would be anthropomorphizing the animals. A shot also regularly starts on an empty landscape, waiting for an animal to wander into the frame, and then lingers after said animal has moved on: Claerbout’s camera is not complicit but aims to remain neutral. In addition to the ways in which the animals’ behavior, the narration (or lack thereof) and the sound design reject the classic conventions, these strategies serve to deconstruct Disney’s original anthropocentric storytelling. More generally, Claerbout uses all of these strategies to lay bare how every tenet of classic cinema (from point of view to narrative causality) is a function of the human experience.