What Kind of Animal is Man?: The Jungle Book and Man’s Identity

By Guest Contributor Anthony Wright

Cover

The jungle book opens by taking the viewer by the hand, guiding them past the iconic Disney logo, and into a jungle of computer generated beauty. This simple journey sets the tone for the entire film, a blending of classic and contemporary, a known tale told in a new, visually spectacular way.

 

The story is a simple one, but told with compelling characters and a driving narrative that engrosses the viewer and turns their thoughts toward what it means to be a human. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a human boy who was left in the jungle and found by the kind-hearted panther, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Realizing his need for a community, Bagheera leaves him under the care of the wolves and their honorable leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), who treat him as any other wolf cub. The problem, however, is that Mowgli is not a wolf cub – he is a “man cub.” The difference is magnified as the movie introduces Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a large and menacing Bengal tiger, whose face is scarred by man’s red flower, and whose heart burns with anger because of it. Sher Khan demands the death of the “man cub,” which causes Mowgli to flee for his life. In his flight, he comes across the entrancing Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the lovable Baloo (Bill Murray), and the larger than life (literally) King Louie (Christopher Walken) creating an adventure that is both terrifying, fun, and wondrous.

All animals

A particular strong point of this film is the world-building. Director, Jon Favreau, guides the audience through a jungle that is teeming with its own culture, folklore, and even religion. This world worked as both a fitting backdrop to the story being told, but also created a sense of mystery and exploration. From the often repeated law of the jungle mantra, to the god-like elephants and the ancient temple of King Louie, there is a world full of narrative and visual depth that enchants the audience and invites them to explore.

The world building works because it is a place we are unfamiliar with, but one that intersects with our own – the world of the animals. Humans are not animals, and neither is Mowgli – a difference this film portrays as greater than physical appearance. Throughout the film, Mowgli approaches problems in ways that are uniquely human – he invents. These creations, or “tricks” as they are referred to by most of the animals, serve to highlight Mowgli as being fundamentally different than the world of the jungle he so badly wants to belong too. For him, and the audience, they are natural solutions; to the animals, however, they are a grim reminder of man, the wielder of the red flower, and his destruction. This tension underlies the entire film as Mowgli cannot escape his humanity, and the animals cannot overlook it. This conflict drives the plot to a visually and emotionally stirring conclusion that asked the viewer, through the choice of Mowgli, whether man can do more than just destroy?

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