(PG) Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Neel Sethi, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Scarlett Johansson

by Mark Hadley

A new imagining of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book will attempt to entertain young audiences by combining the best elements of past productions – the playful joys of the classic 1967 Disney cartoon, alongside the moral heart of the author’s original stories.

Iron Man director John Favreau helms Disney’s live-action re-make of The Jungle Book. Twisting the original tale, Favreau introduces us to Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a lost boy who is raised in the jungle by a pack of Indian wolves. When the Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) threatens his life, Mowgli is forced to undertake a journey of self-discovery that will take him into long forgotten reaches of the wilderness in the company of his protectors Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley) and Baloo the bear (Bill Murray).

The man-cub Mowgli aims to return to the society of humans, but this will be a journey of self-discovery mixed with joy and sadness. There will be those he meets along the way like the python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and the giant ape King Louie (Christopher Walken) who have less savoury plans for him than his animal friends. Mowgli will also come to realise he is caught between worlds. The humanity he’s heading towards knows nothing of the natural wonders he’s enjoyed his entire life.

Favreau has made a conscious decision to create a dreamlike setting for his story, and opted to work almost entirely within computer-generated landscapes. Audiences will be amazed to learn that the rich jungles of India featured in the film are complete creations that owe more to the technical wizardry developed for Avatar than any real-world location. However the director has kept alive the playful heart of 1967 Disney production by recruiting that film’s composer Richard M. Sherman, and including some of the original songs like The Bare Necessities, this time sung by Murray. Some of the biggest changes, though, relate to the plot.

Kipling’s original intention for the python Kaa was to have him as a tolerant mentor for Mowgli; Disney’s cartoon switched him to a sibilant toady for Shere Khan; and Favreau’s film pitches Johansson’s character as a threat to the boy’s life. It’s not surprising too that in a time of increased environmental sensitivity Shere Khan’s motivation for wanting to kill Mowgli now relates less to his hunger and pride and more to the threat mankind presents to the jungle:


“I can’t help, but notice there’s a strange odour today. Man is forbidden!”


Why? Because Khan has suffered wounds from men in the past and warns how dangerous they can be – but then Kipling’s stories were never short of a moral sting in the tail. His Jungle Books read like fables, frequently including lines of verse that summarise the lessons to be learned:


“These are the four that are never content: that have never been filled since the dew began – [the crocodile’s] mouth, and the glut of the kite, and the hands of the ape, and the eyes of Man.”


The greed of mankind colours the behaviour of King Louie and drives other elements of the plot as well. But there’s a book that was sounding this warning long before Kipling or Favreau put pen to paper:


“The leech has two daughters: Give and Give.” [1]


There is no end to human desire either in the buzzing city or the pristine wilderness because we don’t understand the joys we find in either place. They are undeniably good, from the ‘bare necessities’ that Baloo sings about to the noble vistas and warm camaraderie that Mowgli discovers. But it’s exactly because they are so good that we regularly mistake them for the source of the happiness they bring. God created everything good, and in so doing imbued them with a scent of His character so that they would lead us back to Him, the source of every joy.

The Jungle Book will undoubtedly bring to mind the pleasures of nature and community that western society have lost, yet we will do well to remind our children that these are gifts who have a Giver. Otherwise we’ll be forever drinking them in like the leech, and never finding our fill.

[1] Proverbs 30:15, ESV

This article was originally published by Anglican Messenger. Click here to see more from Anglican Messenger.