The waters are rising. News reports tell of rationing, curfews, economic collapse. One announcer goes so far as to speculate about the extinction of human beings and even — the horror! — the end of Google search.
This extrapolation of the climate crisis is where Akram Khan’s “Jungle Book Reimagined” begins. In this two-hour production, which had its New York debut at the Rose Theater on Thursday, most of the reimagining of Rudyard Kipling’s fable is devoted to updating. Instead of a boy raised by wolves, Mowgli is a refugee girl separated from her family as sea levels surge. She is adopted by animals who have formed a peaceable kingdom in a city that humans have left behind.
Many familiar characters appear, slightly altered. Baloo the bear is now a bear who was forced to dance by humans before escaping the humiliation. The Bandar-log monkeys are now former lab specimens, still traumatized by being experimented on but longing to replace their former masters. Kaa the python is dangerous and hypnotizing but also hung up on memories of captivity in a zoo.
These characters are played by dancers. But crucial sections of the story — Mowgli’s separation from her family, flashbacks to her life in a village — and several important characters, like the elephants and the birds, come in the form of projected animations (by Adam Smith and Nick Hillel of YeastCulture). And all of the characters, who speak dialogue by Tariq Jordan, are voiced by pre-recorded actors.
This theatrical device makes even the live sections feel like a cartoon or animated movie. And since many of the voices are hammy or stilted, much of “Jungle Book Reimagined” feels like a B-grade animated movie. The live performers move to the rhythms of the voices in an exaggerated but oddly inexpressive manner.
As choreographer and director, Khan, a British Bangladeshi artist who has turned his cross-cultural style into a brand, gives the performers some animal motion, mainly lots of scampering on all fours. But the sections of dance — in alliance with a tepidly cinematic East-meets-West score by Jocelyn Pook — are slack and unmemorable. And almost all of the live action pales next to the animation, much of which (especially the elephants and flying arrows) is wondrous, beautiful and emotionally engaging.
Message-wise, the reimagining is admirable enough. In flashbacks, Mowgli’s mother teaches an Indigenous ethic of humans as a part of a nature, even as Mowgli resists hunting and wants to befriend animals instead. In place of Kipling’s respect for law and authority, Mowgli learns a contemporary ethic of looking within herself; she resists human violence with intelligence and returns to her own kind so that she might teach humans how to listen. The voice of a teenage Greta Thunberg, the climate activist, repeating “How dare you?!” on the recording, serves as the moral center.
But as a show that seems to aspire to the values of commercial entertainment, “Jungle Book Reimagined” falls short. Where’s the suspense, the humor, the heart? I saw many children in the audience, but heard no screams and very little laughter, not even in response to silly Baloo the bear. In a child-friendly production, that’s a sign that some of the bare necessities are missing.
“Jungle Book Reimagined”
Through Saturday at the Rose Theater; lincolncenter.org.