“Now this is the Law of the Jungle — as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk the Law runneth forward and back —
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”
The Jungle Book is Disney’s new high-tech, live-action (sort of) remake of their 1967 animated film based on Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 book. The new version tries to find a middle path between the more light-hearted earlier film, and the darker, more mythic Kipling story. Director Jon Favreau purposely wanted to keep some of the elements of the earlier film that he loved as a child. But rather than produce a straight remake, he has created something much more enticing with much greater depth.
Because the film is mostly CG animation (assisted at various points of production with puppetry and motion capture), it has an amazingly realistic look to it. These are not cartoon tigers, wolves, and bears. They look real, even though they talk. That in itself makes the film a bit darker and scarier (especially for younger children). The action/adventure element can be intense at times, but that just adds to the enjoyment of the film.
The film is part coming of age story and part hero’s journey. This is the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi, the only actual onscreen performer), a man-cub discovered alone in the jungle as an infant by the panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley). Knowing that Mowgli would need “a people” to raise him, he was left with the wolf pack lead by Akela and Raksha (Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o). This is the only home and family that Mowgli has known. When the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) discovers there is a man-cub in the jungle, he vows to kill it and anyone who stands in his way.
It is decided that Mowgli must leave the jungle for the realm of men. He and Bagheera start off on a journey to the human village. Along the way there are adventures—some fun, others quite dangerous—in which Mowgli must learn to make wise choices. He also must use his resourcefulness (a part of his human nature) as he makes his way. Among those he meets on the way are Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) a massive and seductive python, Baloo (Bill Murray) a slothful but lovable bear, and King Louie (Christopher Walken), a huge Gigantopithicus (a cross between an orangutan and a yeti) who wants Mowgli to give him the secret of man’s red flower (fire) so he can rule the jungle.
There are several themes in the story worth exploring. The first is what it means to be human and what it means that humans are animals. Mowgli, having been raised by the jungle animals, really thinks like them. He has had no contact with humans so he doesn’t know what they are like. Yet, he is also different from the animals. He has “tricks”. He creates and uses tools. He makes complicated plans to achieve an end. But Mowgli, even though he has certain skills as a part of his nature, is never seen as above the other animals. He feels he belongs to the jungle, and most of the animals accept him as he is.
Mowgli also must choose between two approaches to life. Bagheera, his primary mentor, and the wolf pack live by order and rules. The pack regularly recites the Law of the Jungle (taken from a Kipling poem). Bagheera (as played by Kingsley) has a military swagger. But when Mowgli meets Baloo, he is exposed to a much different understanding. Baloo lives for ease and pleasure. At first look, this may come across as the kind of difference between wisdom and folly found in the biblical book of Proverbs. But Mowgli learns that each way of living has its own rewards. It is not so much that he must choose between them as he must learn to balance them. Bagheera and Baloo also learn of the need to balance.
But the key value that The Jungle Book puts forward is that of community. Mowgli alone may be resourceful and creative, but he is no match for the dangers in the jungle. That is why Bagheera gave him to the wolf pack to raise. Much of the film is built around the idea of community: Mowgli and the Pack, Mowgli and Bagheera’s relationship, and Mowgli’s working and playing with Baloo are all about the importance of being tied to one another. And when Mowgli and Shere Kahn must settle scores, as we know they must, it is the Law of the Jungle—“For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack”—that sets the stage for the outcome. In Ecclesiastes it says,
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
The importance of helping each other and living in peace with others is at the core of The Jungle Book.
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios