The seemingly endless barrage of live-action remakes to classic Disney films has to this point been little more than a blatant cash-grab to capitalize on a very nostalgic generation raised on the Disney renaissance and VHS copies of the company’s classic library. The failure of Disney’s other live action properties (Tomorrowland, John Carter, The BFG) will probably only fuel this trend. This trend has met with strong commercial success, but artistically has varied from bad (Oz the Great and Powerful) to campy but good (Maleficent). The Jungle Book (directed by Jon Favreau) is the first film to buck this trend and be actually good without qualifiers.
On the surface, we get what seems like a pretty standard retelling of the 1967 film, with somewhat photo-realistic CG animals and a slightly more serious tone. All that is true, but beneath the surface, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks have some interesting things to say about the relationship between humanity and nature. I don’t usually write reviews that summarize the plot of a movie, but in this case it is necessary to illustrate my conclusions. If you haven’t seen The Jungle Book yet I would absolutely recommend checking it out. Be warned, there will be spoilers.
The primary thematic question of the film is whether or not Mowgli (played by mostly solid newcomer Neel Sethi) can stay in the jungle, a metaphor for whether or not humanity can be part of nature, or separated from it. At the start of the film, we see Mowgli running with a wolf-pack from Bagheera the black panther (Ben Kingsley). Bagheera is dismissive of Mowgli’s attempts to be a wolf, and spends the majority of the film with the belief that Mowgli cannot stay in the jungle. Mowgli appears somewhat remedial to the animals, since he grows and develops at a much slower rate than the wolf puppies. Despite this, Mowgli shows a unique knack for invention. Bagheera discourages this, believing it is better for Mowgli to blend as much as possible with the wolves. It’s also likely that Bagheera doesn’t want to be reminded of Mowgli’s humanity and the inevitability of his return to civilization. At the start of the film, it appears Bagheera is right, that Mowgli must be with his own kind. The arrival of Shere Khan and his declaration that he plans to kill Mowgli, indicates that the time to leave the jungle is now. Not wanting to endanger his pack, and perhaps accepting Bagheera’s criticism, Mowgli agrees to leave.
Shere Khan the tiger (Idris Elba) is not happy, however, and insists that Mowgli must be turned over him to be killed. It is heavily implied that Shere Khan wishes to get revenge for the damage Mowgli’s father did to him with fire. Shortly after Bagheera and Mowgli leave for the human village, Shere Khan attacks and the two become separated. Shere Khan then kills the leader of the wolf-pack and holds them hostage for ransom. The ransom, is Mowgli.
Throughout the film, humans are closely associated with fire, or “The Red Flower” as the animals call it. The Red Flower is a metaphor for violence, specifically violence tied to technology. The environmental destruction of fire is a key element that made my mind associate The Red Flower with nuclear warheads, but it can be applied to virtually any destructive human creation. Fire is so closely associated with humans, that it is considered their defining characteristic. The film’s reference to humans as “man” is not a mistake or a sexist cliche. It is a direct critique of society’s association between masculinity and aggression.
Mowgli is captured by a gigantic snake, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) who attempts to hypnotize him. In the snake’s eyes, Mowgli sees Shere Khan attack and kill his father, but not before being scarred by his father’s torch. Mowgli sees a reflection of himself in the eyes, his past and a possible future.
After escaping, Mowgli soon befriends a bear named Baloo (Bill Murray), and helps him live a life of ease by applying his ingenuity to the creation of time-saving devices for the bear. As Baloo and Mowgli’s friendship forms, we begin to think that perhaps Mowgli could stay in the jungle, but before we get too comfortable, Bagheera arrives to inform Baloo of the impending danger. Baloo is resistant at first, but ultimately tells Mowgli to leave.
Mowgli runs away from the two and meets King Louis (Christopher Walken), a character who might seem superfluous, but is actually an integral part of the film’s thesis. King Louis is a giant orangutan and a perfect foil for Mowgli. Where Mowgli is a man trying to be an animal, Louis is an animal trying to be a man. In the process of trying to become more human-like, King Louis has grown to an enormous size and trapped himself in the ruins of a temple. His character is presented in darkness with enormous piles of fruit, driving home his perverted and monstrous nature. Louis is obsessed with obtaining The Red Flower, believing it will be the thing to make him equal with man. Louis is crushed by his own home as Mowgli escapes, and leads us back to the central question of the film. Louis attempted to become as much like a man as he could, in defiance of his nature. This led directly to his death. If by attempting to stay in the jungle and live with nature Mowgli is defying his nature, what fate could await him?
Leading up to the confrontation with Shere Khan, Mowgli embraces the darker side of his humanity and steals a torch from the nearby human settlement to fight. In doing so, he accidentally starts a fire that engulfs much of the forest. Seeing how destructive the red flower is, Mowgli rejects it and flees into the forest, with the tiger in pursuit. In the final stand-off, it is Mowgli’s inventions that save him and lead Shere Khan to his death.
Unlike the ending to the 1967 film, Mowgli does stay in the jungle with his friends. The key to doing so was to embrace his unique human trait of invention, while rejecting the destructive side of human nature. While Mowgli learns what it is to be human, he also learns what it is specifically to be a man. The Red Flower represents violence in general, but also toxic masculinity explicitly. What does it mean to be a man? Much of society associates masculinity with a lack of sensitivity, and a tendency towards aggression and dominance. Mowgli achieves success by rejecting these attitudes and embracing empathy.
So if you were wondering why the remake changed the ending of the 1967 film, I hope I’ve provided a good explanation. I would recommend The Jungle Book to almost anyone, for it’s visual strengths, tight script, strong thematic message and sure, even a bit of nostalgia.