Oh, the things we can learn from Walt Disney productions. Befriend that stranger you met in the woods, accept apples from creepy geriatric women and never forget that dalmations have a higher rate of success in their love life than you.
After watching Jon Favreau’s 2016 reimagining of Rudyard Kipling’s classic text The Jungle Book, it seemed so clear to me that many of these fundamental life-lessons Mowgli has us swallowing are actually pivotal mirrors of our current, exploitative reality in disguise. This particular adaptation entrenches modern dominance of humans over the animal kingdom and inadvertently illustrates our tragic separation from a world of which we were once a functioning part.
The film depicts a small man cub, Mowgli, seeking security and inadvertent preeminence in a jungle he was not born into, accompanied by a variety of welcoming and musically gifted animals.
Staying true to the anthropomorphism of Disney’s beloved 1967 Jungle Book animated film, Mowgli is able to communicate in clear American-English with his adoptive wolf-pack family and later his confidants Baloo and Bagheera. Even his omnipresent arch-nemesis, Shere Khan, is characterised by a voice of velvety caution. However, it is interesting to note which of the animals in this earthy, thriving jungle are not personified by language or given the voice of a famous actor or actress.
Elephants, birds, wild buffalo and smaller, simpler primates are all reduced to either insipid squeaks or complete silence, despite Bagheera’s narrative classification of all animals of the watering hole as ‘people’. Coincidentally, these voiceless animals are often neglected by actual society, with monkeys and elephants playing an enormous role as props in the tourism industry, while gazelles, buffalo and bright, rare birds are hunted for human leisure. Conversely, typified and favoured Animalia who either omit danger or display behavior resembling that of humans are depicted as superior within this twisted jungle hierarchy.
It would seem that despite the tropical forest being representative of the natural, wild world, animals only deserve a solidified role within it if they can show a cross-species maternal instinct, human-like ulterior motives or the ability to vocally rectify wolfy political codes like Akela and his pack. Although it is repetitively threatened throughout the film, Mowgli’s place in the jungle is autonomously legitimised by the fact that he is a human and therefore has the power to choose the ground he steps upon. This is compounded by the idea of the coveted ‘red flower’, a repeated motif of fire and destruction available exclusively to the world of man.
So when Mowgli heroically bounds through the forest, harboring at long last the revered ‘red flower’ of human control and in turn the ability to end the ceaseless grudge of his heavy, striped enemy, it comes as a nasty surprise that the battle takes a tragic turn and the entire ecosystem becomes viciously emaciated. As the jungle’s foliage burns red and black and Shere Khan falls into a hot and certain death, the audience is relieved that Mowgli’s illegitimate home has been fortified and he will live another day in a world that does not belong to him.
But this kind of interaction between human pride and natural resources in the real world has only ever shone light on the fact that the end rarely justifies the means. As a plague of deforestation and destruction riddles its way through South-East Asia at a terrifying pace, Greenpeace estimates that areas of jungle the size of a football pitch are lost to logging every two seconds. Yet in Favreau’s The Jungle Book, all is forgiven when Mowgli sits atop an elephant, a ‘wise, creator of the forest’ turned submissive chariot and creates a quick-fix for his error by flooding the river and extinguishing the terror of his accidental treachery. The world’s obsession with an unrealistically easy way out is vividly depicted here as the superior animals who survived the ordeal rejoice in their wormy, green grove and Mowgli uses an exuberant footrace through hastily rejuvenated forestry to prove himself faster, better and stronger than all of them combined.
It is intriguing to consider how differently the story would fare had it been told from the burnt amber eyes of Shere Khan, a fierce and indigenous protector displaying foresight and wisdom despite his vilified and fearsome portrayal. Indeed, every cataclysm depicted in Favreau’s The Jungle Book could have been avoided entirely had Mowgli been returned to the small patch of earth owned by humans, thus minimising interference. Yet Mowgli’s taunting repetition of “I’m not afraid of you” is all it takes to waver the monstrous and magnetic big cat towards defeat in his own home, as he remembers that a human is not a human without its lethal ‘tricks’.
Had the wisdom of Shere Khan been favored above Mowgli’s innately human sense of righteousness, Disney may have delivered a life lesson carrying a little more poignancy than their usual pragmatic take on claiming what’s yours and indirectly terminating any plausible opponents.
The only way to protect the bruised hearts beating in the trees is to leave them be and it isn’t difficult to see that the range of people ignoring this concept are not limited to uninformed characters with dirty hair and red-loincloths in story-books.