The Jungle Book

The new live-action Jungle Book is not a movie I would have professed myself overly excited to see. I recall watching and enjoying the Disney animated version (and from time to time find myself singing about the necessities of life, bare as they may be). However, that particular movie does not hold such a place of reverence in my mind, as it does for others of my generation. When I first heard about this new 2016 Jungle Book film, I supposed it was primarily intended for children. Yet the buzz around the movie sparked my interest, and after watching a startlingly thrilling trailer, I decided the movie was worth a watch.

My experience with the film completely subverted my initial expectations, starting with this one: it is not only a children’s movie, or maybe not even for children at all. I was certainly startled on numerous occasions throughout my viewing experience. The tiger (voiced by Idris Elba) is frankly quite terrifying, and really makes for a powerful adversary. (If anything, this movie reinforced my fear of tigers, and made me feel more warmly towards bears, as a result of Baloo, who was lovably voiced by Bill Murray). Shere Khan, the tiger, aptly points out to the wolf pack who have adopted Mowgli as their own, that Mowgli is distinctly unlike them. Mowgli is a human, a young boy who will soon become a man, and as such, he does not belong in the jungle but among his own kind.

This divide between man and beast forms the key issue of the entire story. What differentiates Mowgli from the animals with whom he shares company? Of course, there are many superficial things we could say, about the physical differences between the two. The animals we see run on four legs and have fur; they have speed and agility; they do not (except for the chimps) have opposable thumbs… Perhaps these differences, of which there are many more that could be added by someone else more knowledgeable and detailed, are not superficial at all. But it is also true that no one animal species is exactly the same as another (and there is a very large number of different species portrayed in the film, strikingly accurate despite their CGI origins). Mowgli the “man cub” is different from his wolf comrades, but should this be a serious impediment to cohabitation? Could he not learn to adapt to living with these animals?

This discussion of differences essentially overlooks those belonging to the mental or spiritual plane. But seeing as the world of the movie presents us with talking, intelligent animals that can both understand and be understood by humans, this facet of the discussion does not factor in here. The answer seemingly supplied as to what makes Mowgli different is encapsulated in the following word: “tricks.” Mowgli innovates continually, using his own fashioned tools and inventions to increase his efficiency, yet these “tricks” only earn him the rebuke of the pack leader. Similarly, Shere Khan’s vendetta against mankind stems from an injury he suffered at the hands of a human and from one of man’s deadliest tricks: fire, or the “red flower” as it is spoken of by the animals.

I find all of this extremely fascinating. Such an exploration, and there are many more of this ilk throughout the film, only acts as a testament to the thoughtfulness and intelligence of the movie. As with any adaptation, something new must be brought to the table to avoid being a mere imitation of earlier versions of a source material. The Jungle Book (2016) is a triumph in re-invigoration and innovation. As I mention the word “innovation” here, I think again of Mowgli and the connection of mankind to “tricks.” It is certainly very true that we, as humans, are innovative. We are capable of coming up with new ideas, of creating and exercising our creativity in spontaneous and surprising ways, in ways that shape the future. Yet these tricks and this very human capacity can also lead to destruction and despair. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the case of the “red flower,” the fire that gives light, life and warmth, but is also capable of ravaging and consuming without remorse. However, the tricks themselves and the capacity for creation are not bad in and of themselves. Their source is good and the ultimate value of their fruit is dependent on how they are used and the intentions with which they are used. Courage, kindness, loyalty, selflessness, sacrifice… These are the things that transform an act. These are the virtues that ennoble a trick.

Perhaps our above discussion of whether humans and animals can cohabitate in the context of the movie has a further answer. Indeed, I think it does, one that is revealed by the final unfolding of this thrilling film. A man can coexist peaceably with an animal; he can, so to speak, “belong,” but only if permitted to be himself and act according to his own nature, not enslaved by the dictates of a nature that is not his own. This functions at a level between species, and, outside of the anthropomorphized world of the film, on a level between human beings, between unique individuals each with an “incommunicable” selfhood. We have a common nature and a common understanding, but the need for individual differentiation is essential. This is a balance that must be maintained, between the fundamental objectivity of truth and the call for compassionate treatment of every human person, of every creation.

Aside from all of this thematic exploration, I feel I must give credit to the aesthetic achievements of this wonderful film. It is not really a musical, with only a couple songs explicitly sung within the story, but the score is phenomenal, with swelling, profoundly evocative pieces that vary on a similar theme to adapt it to different key emotional moments. The voice cast is also excellent, with Bill Murray especially shining, and debut actor, Neel Sethi, impressive as the only human on display in the movie. Lastly, the visuals of The Jungle Book are dazzling: absolutely brilliant cinematography of (you guessed it) a jungle and the many diverse animals that live within it. Whoever you are and whatever you think (or have thought) about The Jungle Book, I recommend you give this latest adaptation a chance.