I finally watched The Jungle Book (on the plane, of all places). It only took a minute of Mowgli darting through the jungle for me to start kicking myself for not watching the film in 3D—the animation and cinematography are stunning.
Although the opening scene suggests danger, we realize soon after Bagheera pounces on Mowgli that our protagonist has a special place in the jungle. Raised by wolves, the man-cub calls the pack his family and considers the jungle his home. Yet he has never assimilated completely into the wild; unlike his brothers and sisters, he matures slowly and has a penchant for ‘tricks’ that set him apart from the animals. He lives in contradicting circumstances as someone who is at once accepted in the pack but also a clear exception to ‘The Law,' which emphasizes the importance of being wolf-like.
Mowgli’s sense of belonging is not seriously thrown in question until the water truce brings all the animals—including Shere Kahn, the most feared and menacing tiger of the jungle—to the same place. Bent on killing Mowgli, whose father scarred him with fire (the ‘red flower’) years ago, Shere Kahn will stop at nothing to get his revenge. Thus, Mowgli is told to return to the ‘man village,’ the only place he will be safe.
Threats are abound in the jungle, from the hypnotic Kaa (not the first time Scarlett Johansson’s voice has been used to seduce) to the towering and power-hungry King Louie (truly reminiscent of Jabba the Hutt).
“Don’t run away from who you are,” King Louie tells Mowgli, thinking that he is destined to wield the flower of death and destruction. His advice, however, can be reinterpreted to reflect the truth; Mowgli defeats Shere Kahn by fighting “like a man,” demonstrating the power of channeling one’s true aptitude through devising ‘tricks’ instead of repressing his instinct for tool making.
It seems symbolic that Mowgli does not finish reciting The Law at the end of the film, for much of The Jungle Book is about the beauty of bending the rules. Bagheera’s very decision to take in Mowgli at the beginning already sets such a precedent. The story is an important reminder that anyone can harness their potential and overcome the stereotypes that entrap them (even the initially slothful and plodding Baloo, who ends up scaling a cliff).
The animals came together once during the water truce, but it is ultimately Mowgli who unites them in a sense of solidarity and shows them that friendship can transcend the barriers in a community that may seem dictated by a food chain.
The film was so enjoyable to watch—intense, humorous (can Bill Murray go wrong?), and moving. I love how the elephants command an Ent-like presence (the similarities are uncanny: both are venerated, walk slowly, and use great volumes of water to their advantage). Of course, I also love the soundtrack (apart from the two swing dance classics performed by Baloo and King Louie, the film’s epic orchestral rendition of The Bare Necessities is what made me want to watch it in the first place).
“I wanna be like you,” sings King Louie. But the film shows us that it is much better to be the individual you really are, no matter where you come from or who you live with. Mowgli is not a man or a cub; he is a man-cub, and he belongs in the jungle all the same.