saw The Jungle Book this week and has some thoughts! This is a good thing. Watching a movie and not having thoughts is… inadvisable. I maintain that media is not like poisonous food – if you eat poisonous food it will make you sick, or it will make you die. But consuming potentially poisonous media can’t hurt you as long as you’re actively engaging with it instead of just letting it sink into your brain unchallenged.
That ridiculousness that just happened up there makes it seem like I had major problems with this movie – and I certainly don’t. I’m just needlessly self-righteous about my approach to watching movies. And now that it’s said, let’s talk.
The animated Jungle Book from 1967 isn’t one of my favourites, mainly because its message is boring: Mowgli has to rejoin the humans because that’s where he belongs. He can’t be a wolf, or a panther, or a bear, because he’s a human.
Responsible, ever-suffering Bagheera even quips to Baloo, “You wouldn’t marry a panther, would you?”
And Baloo’s diplomatic response is, “I don’t know. Come to think of it, no panther ever asked me.” Hint hint, Bagheera.
I can maybe get behind the whole “Mowgli doesn’t belong in the jungle” if we weren’t backing up our arguments with assertions about how silly the idea of mixing races is, or whatever this nonsense is supposed to be. But even without that, humans are animals. Insisting on separating them from their wilder cousins ignores that fact. It also ignores the many humans who even today do live in the wild. Sure, they have settlements, but they don’t belong to the broader global whatever it is we’ve so ingeniously built for ourselves, or so the story goes.
I’ve noticed that 90s movie versions of the “Man is raised by animals in the jungle” stories, or “Man goes to live in the wild” stories in general, the ending is the man in question staying in the jungle. And yes, it’s always a man. And I’ll get to that. But think of Tarzan, where Tarzan is torn between staying in his home and going to be among “civilized” humanity, and ultimately stays. Not only that, but his love interest gives it all up too and stays with him, as does her father.
But in the animated Jungle Book, Mowgli is dead-set against going to live with people until he sees Shanti (she probably only has a name in the sequel. And the sequel isn’t half-bad, actually). Then she deliberately lures him in with her, and he’s like, “Doofy shrug,” and leaves the jungle behind forever.
Shanti sings the most hilarious song too, and I had apparently wiped it from my mind until I rewatched it recently:
Look. Little girls should daydream/sing about whatever they want, but as three put it: it’s kind of weird when a bunch of men write it like this.
In any case, as I was watching the updated live-action + CGI animals version, I started wondering HOW they were possibly going to make this work. Thematically the new version is more about community than drawing strict lines between the species, helped in no small part by having Shere Khan be an ACTUALLY COMPETENT VILLAIN this time around. So how were they going to insist that Mowgli needed to leave and be among his own kind?
Bagheera has two points when he insists that Mowgli has to leave:
1. Mowgli isn’t safe in the jungle because of Shere Khan. But this time around Shere Khan knows what he’s doing and Mowgli can’t fix everything by leaving. Shere Khan doesn’t want him to leave, he wants him dead. And once Shere Khan is out of the picture, this argument is no longer valid.
2. Mowgli’s little tricks don’t belong in the jungle. Mowgli is apparently an engineer extraordinaire, developing a honey-harvesting system and a food-storage system for Baloo’s non-existent upcoming hibernation. Bagheera’s like, “That stuff doesn’t belong here.” Not in a pro-environment, anti-deforestation kind of way, but in a “If you want to do that stuff you have to do it in the Man-Village” kind of way. Baggy gets proven wrong because Mowgli uses his super-engineering skills to rescue a baby elephant, and after watching this no longer insists that pulley-systems and other such sorcery are solely a Man-Village thing.
The answer to how they were going to insist that Mowgli has to leave turned out to be: they don’t. Instead, Mowgli settles in on a tree branch with Bagheera and Baloo and watches the movie end, which makes a lot more sense.
A quick gripe before I’m done: why are there no “a girl gets raised by animals in the jungle” or “a girl goes off to live in the wild” stories? I think the reason is that we like to use these stories to celebrate humanity’s ingenuity with tools and building things, and if it’s a little girl doing that and not Mowgli or Tarzan you might not be able to suspend your disbelief. Because women don’t do engineering as we of course all know. But all I know is, I’m waiting for live-action Tarzan to be a girl. And for them to keep Jane a girl too.
And one quick happy thing: CGI animals are the best! Real animals aren’t actors.