Let’s start with the bare necessities: The Jungle Book is all that anyone could hope for and more in re-telling an old classic.
Jon Favreau and his team have done a wonderful job adapting the famous, hand-drawn 1967 original musical into modern, eye-popping digitalization. To my personal delight, the majority of characters are back in stupendous, visually arresting form. The hypnotic giant boa Kaa (Scarlet Johansson), the lovable, big Baloo (Bill Murray), the wise old black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). And of course, our hero Mowgli (Neel Sethi) and his pack of wolves, led by Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o).
I am also delighted to report that the songs are back. King Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You” and Baloo’s “The Bear Necessities” are here, and they sound great. Moreover, the songs manage to work within the context of Favreau’s meticulously constructed world and logic. It’s a visual achievement on par with Avatar.
But just like any good children’s story, this tale is more than a collection of cutesy characters and memorable jingles. In a way, Favreau mines his source material for even more sophisticated themes than the first movie, or Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 book on which Disney based its first movie. Favreau’s modern adaptation introduces concepts of darkness and light, coexistence, human progress, and even immigration issues.
The most prevalent theme, however, is that there is immense power in belonging.
Bagheera begins the movie with a profound statement: “I knew in order to survive [Mowgli] needed a group to belong to.” And from that statement, the rest of the story unfolds. Mowgli is never given the opportunity to truly belong. We see it even within the first few minutes, where we get a small window into Mowgli’s life with his wolf pack. As he runs through the forest, plays with his “siblings,” and learns to fight, he gets repeatedly scolded for his human-like “tricks.” Our hearts break a bit for Mowgli as we watch him desperately try to be a wolf, try to fit in, try to hold back from being different and using his “humanness.” At one point we even hear his “father” say, “I know you weren’t born a wolf, but could you at least act like one?”
It’s heartbreaking because we have all been there. We all know the horrible feeling of not fitting in, of not feeling a sense of belonging, of being the odd ball out.
We only feel more pity for him as the story continues. A threat to Mowgli’s life causes him to leave the pack with Bagheera, forcing him to return to the man village. Throughout their journey, Mowgli asks honest questions about where he belongs. At one point he even calls Bagheera out and says, “You can’t tell me I don’t belong here. This is where I grew up. This is all I have ever known.”
Despite some compelling arguments from the little guy, Bagheera pushes them forward into their journey. Through some unfortunate events, the two of them are separated and Mowgli meets Baloo. Finally we get to a part in the story where we get to be excited for Mowgli. Finally we get to see him open up and exercise his uniqueness to its fullest. Baloo provides a place for him to belong, and it is amazing to watch.
The excitement quickly comes to a halt when Mowgli and Bagheeara are reunited. It is with a tremendous amount of fear that Mowgli admits he’s been using his “human tricks” to help Baloo, and Bagheeara again tells Mowgli that there is no place for him in the jungle. Once again the fact that he is different, and those differences are not welcomed is reinforced
Just like Mowgli, we all struggle with what “belonging” means. How do we belong when others just won’t let us? How much of ourselves do we allow to be changed in order to fit in? How do we create a place for belonging for each other? It’s an age old want: the desire to fit in, to be a part of something, to have a place where we can be fully ourselves without fear of rejection.
The Jungle Book understands that. It’s a message that’s as relevant in 2016 as it was in 1967—maybe more so, given the current timber of some of the immigration debates taking place today. The movie understands the way little spaces in the world open up where people can belong, no matter how little they seem to fit in. Instead of requiring people to act within our expectations, The Jungle Book calls us to allow people to be who they are without fear of rejection. There’s power in that.