The new Jungle Book movie is absolutely stunning visually and it follows the original fairly closely, so you have a general idea of what you’re getting. It is not, however, the same, and the changes, even subtle ones, have a fairly significant impact on the message this movie is making. Some of the themes I will point out will, no doubt, be beyond a young child’s conscious thought, but that doesn’t mean they won’t subconsciously impact him or her, for better or for worse. I’ll point out some of the themes/message, but then give you some questions to ask which will help you see what your child took away from the movie and allow you to have some discussions about it (whether your child is 6 or 16). It’s a simple child’s story on the surface, but don’t let it fool you—like most children’s stories, there is surprising amount of depth to it. Here are 7 easy points of discussion.
1. Be Yourself
Part of me wants to groan whenever I hear yet another plug for (one of) this generation’s favorite mantra(s): Just be yourself. It’s not that it’s such a bad message, only that it’s common and a bit tired, not to mention it can be a bit unbalanced. Surprisingly, The Jungle Book presents this message a bit differently, and perhaps a bit more balanced.
Mowgli is actually not encouraged to be himself. He’s told to learn the wolf way of doing things, because he’s part of their pack. He gets scolded for using his “tricks,” like using a make-shift cup to draw water from the water hole rather than lapping it up like a wolf, or climbing trees to run and escape, versus running on the ground like a wolf. It seems a bit ridiculous—he’s not a wolf, after all. Why can’t he do things his way? When he does things the wolf way, he always loses.
(Side note—this is my gripe about our ridiculous striving for equality. We try to be equal by being the same, but we actually lose our equality when we do so. If two runners run the 50 yard dash, there will be a winner and a loser—in other words, in being the same, one wins and one loses. But, if those two people run different races, the mile and the 50, say, then you end up with two people who can be equal, both winners, by not being the same.)
So, as I was saying, he felt like he was being hamstrung, held back by the wolves insistence he did things their way, but to his credit, he submitted to their authority in this and he learned some valuable lessons from it. He learned lessons about humility and submission, for starters. He also learned that everything wasn’t all about him, it was about the pack. The wolf code stated that “The strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” It’s a great team mentality. The pack is made stronger by each wolf being his/her best. And each wolf (or man-cub) is defended and supported and strengthened by the pack itself. There is no lone wolf here. Mowgli wasn’t being squashed, he was being taught to value community and to see his role in it.
That was an important lesson, one that he needed to learn first. Then, after learning to value the community equal to and/or above himself, then he could grow in his individual strengths in a healthy way. He met Baloo who, though using Mowgli for his selfish gain, encouraged his creativity and individual talents. (It just goes to show you that it takes a village to raise a child and even people with selfish motives can still be good underneath it all, and can even be used to good end in your child’s life.) Mowgli blossomed in many ways, but he wasn’t spoiled…because he had this beautiful foundation of the wolf pack mentality. (Without seeing the value of the collective community, I dare say Mowgli was in great danger of becoming insufferable and egotistical—he was the only one of his kind around. He could have easily become a super-star in his own eyes.) In the end, Mowgli brings together his individualism and unique giftings and his wolf pack/community mentality in beautiful harmony. It’s the blending of these two that saves the day. So yes, Mowgli does learn to “be himself”, but it’s so much better and richer than the “just be yourself” message we usually get. This one is laced with humility, service and respect for others.
- Why was it important for Mowgli to learn to be part of the pack before he was free to “be himself”? Those messages seem contradictory, but how do they actually work together to balance things out? Which is harder for you—to submit to the group, or to be yourself?
2. Hate and Jealousy Kill
Shere Khan and King Louie both have it out for Mowgli. Shere Khan hates him because he hates all men—because of unforgiveness in his heart. He was hurt by a man in the past and that wound, no matter how long ago, has driven his actions ever since. King Louie is less driven by hatred and more by jealousy. He wants the power that man has to make fire. We know these things aren’t good, but we don’t often see such clear cause and effect. In The Jungle Book, however, both Shere Khan and King Louie die as a direct result of their hatred and jealousy in such a way that it’s easy to see that hate and jealousy bring death. (Here are some verses about the dangers of jealousy: Galatians 5:16-24, Philippians 2:3, James 3:14-16, Proverbs 14:30. And hate: 1 John 3:15, 1 john 2:9, Proverbs 6:16-19.) Conversely, Mowgli provides a good example of how to handle the evil in the land. He fights when he must, but chooses to focus on doing right and on the good around him. In fact, he does a decent job of illustrating Psalm 37:1-3, “Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.”
- How did jealousy and hate bring death to Shere Khan and King Louie? How have jealousy and hate affected your life and relationships? Why do you think Proverbs 37:1-3 says not to worry about evildoers (including jealous and hateful people)?
3. Fire – A Double Edged Sword
Mowgli: The red flower [fire] doesn’t seem so bad.
Baloo: Yeah, let it loose and… [just] don’t ever play with it.
Here’s the thing about fire, in the right context, in safe boundaries, fire is a wonderful thing giving life and warmth to everything around it. It’s wonderfully useful when it’s in proper control. When, however, fire gets outside of those boundaries, it is almost immediately a terrifying force which scars, wounds, destroys and kills. The thing which once brought comfort can also bring the most intense pain. I heard a pastor once compare sex to fire. Inside the boundaries of a marriage, it is life giving to the whole house. Outside of that boundary, it is terribly destructive. The metaphor applies to a lot of things, however, not just sex. Our world is full of things which start of good and productive and useful, but quickly get out of control, go beyond their rightful boundaries, and become destructive and hurtful. We certainly see this played out in the movie, as Mowlgi grabs a stick of fire to go and fight Shere Khan, with the best of motives—wanting to defend the helpless. He doesn’t understand the power that he holds, or the nature of fire, so it’s not long before it gets out of control. I think this is a great illustration for a lot of the problems kids get into. They grab hold of something, trying to play grown up, that they don’t understand either the nature of it or the power of it, and before long, it’s out of control and consuming and they are themselves in danger. It all worked out OK for Mowgli, but that’s not always the case in real life.
- What things can you think of are like fire, good within certain boundaries but dangerous outside of those boundaries? Have you ever played with fire, so to speak, and found it to be more powerful than you realized? Have you ever taken something out of the right boundaries and been burned by it?
4. Man is… Bad???
One subtle but very significant change in this version of the story is its portrayal of mankind. It’s understandable that the animal kingdom would fear man and see them as bad (men being hunters and all), but this time they took it a bit farther. Any time mankind is shown (outside of Mowgli), he is portrayed as raucous and menacing. Balloo laments that if Mowgli goes to the man village, “They’ll make a man out of him.” Becoming a man is never shown as something that could be noble or good, only as something bad, something that would be a shame. Whereas growing up and becoming a man should be seen as a good thing, something to aspire to, in this case, it’s seen as a bad thing, a digression rather than a progression. There is no sweet, innocent young girl at the water calling Mowgli on to the next step in life, calling him toward marriage and family and adulthood in the end of the movie this time.
This time, Mowgli stays with the animals which in some ways is sweet. We like his friends and there was always a sadness about the original when he had to leave them behind. It was sad, but somehow, we all knew it was right, too. It was part of growing up, like when two people leave their father and mother to marry and cleave to each other. Bittersweet, but right. This time, the subtle message is that mankind is bad and Mowgli stays pure if he remains in the animal kingdom, because the man kingdom is corrupt and will ruin him. In many ways, the idea of him staying in the animal kingdom to manage it, protect it, rule over it with kindness and love is Biblical. This was what we were commanded to do back in Genesis when man was created. It was always God’s plan for us to care for and steward creation. It’s just that we are supposed to do it as humans, as mankind, not in rejection of mankind. Those two aren’t supposed to be mutually exclusive.
The pendulum has swung too far. It was hard to see him grow up and leave his childhood family, but in some ways, that was a good lesson. Movies used to teach good, hard truths—truths about war (Bednobs and Broomsticks, for example), about loss and growing up and life and death (Bambi, Old Yeller, The Yearling)… Now everyone gets a trophy and movies are anesthetized a bit. Don’t you wonder how a retelling of Old Yeller would go these days? I have a sneaking suspicion he wouldn’t have to die in the end because we don’t want to weep and we don’t want our children to have to see the hard things in life. We want everything to be happy.
I’m not against happy endings, but I think this one has gone a bit too far—in order to achieve the happy ending where Mowgli doesn’t leave his animal friends, he rejects his own kind in the process and man is demonized. Maybe the better ending is a compromise between the two. Mowgli could go back to the man village with a purpose. He could become a crusader with a passion to care for creation and to teach his fellow man how to do so as well. He could still care for the jungle but also have ties with his fellow man and bring about positive change in the relationships between the two.
- What do you think of the different ending, of Mowgli staying in the jungle vs. joining mankind? How would you say the movie portrayed mankind? Do you think growing up and becoming an adult is a good thing to aspire to, or a bad thing to avoid?
5. Got to Do Something
Mowgli had a refreshing “must act” attitude. When he hears of the wrongs being done by Shere Khan to the wolf pack, he is horrified. All the more so when he finds out that his friends knew and didn’t do anything about it. “Somebody’s got to do something!” He’s really a wonderful role model in this aspect. He has a heart that is desperate to defend the weak and fight injustice…a heart much like God’s. (Isaiah 58:6-11.)
- Why is Mowgli a heroic character? When you see injustice and/or people who are hurting, what is your response to it? Do you know people who have to “do something” when they hear about things that are wrong in the world?
6. Weakness into Strength
It seemed like a negative that Mowgli was a little boy with a people. He felt lost. He was constantly trying to figure out which tribe he could adopt as his own… That very weakness, however, became a great strength and he was the one to unify the jungle. (He could have even unified man and beast, as I mentioned earlier, if the authors had cared to take it a step further.) Bagheera said it this way, “I saw a little boy without a people bring all the jungle together for the first time.” This is a surprising spiritual truth—that God takes our weaknesses and often turns them into our strengths.
- How did Mowgli’s weakness, of not having a people, become his strength? What are some of your weaknesses? Have you ever felt they could be strengths for you, too? If you knew your weaknesses were going to be strengths, how might you feel differently about them?
7. Law Brings Life
Part of the wolves code said, “This is the law of the jungle… The wolf that keeps it prospers but the wolf that breaks it dies.” They recognized that the law was there to bring life to them. They saw that keeping the law protected and even prospered them, but that breaking the law brought death. They recognized a direct causality between the law and life and death. In Deuteronomy 30 we see the same causality laid out for the people of Israel. God tells his people that if they obey his law, he’ll prosper them and restore them, but if they don’t they will bring curses on themselves. Here is the conclusion of the passage:
See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God[a] that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules,[b] then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.
- How did the wolf law bring life and protection to those that followed it (and death to those that didn’t)? Did you know that God’s law promises the same thing as the wolf code, life and death to those who follow or break it?