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The Jungle Book ••••1/2

The_Jungle_Book_(2016)Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: Justin Marks, Rudyard Kipling
Adventure/Drama/Family, Rated: PG
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: April 15, 2016


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it looks like Disney decided to re-make an old classic.

Can you re-make a new classic? Let’s recap The Jungle Book.

We meet Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young man-cub who was left for dead in the jungle and then rescued by a black panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Mowgli is raised by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and her pack of young wolf-cubs. The young boy tries to act like a wolf but on occasion he can’t help showing the cleverness of a human. During this particular year, the dry season hits the jungle hard. All the animals call a truce so that they can all drink safely at the ever-shrinking watering hole.

That’s when Shere Khan arrives and declares that there’s not enough room in this jungle for him and the man cub. Once the truce is over he wants young Mowgli turned over to him. But Baheera decides to return the boy to the man-village so that he can be among his own kind. And so begins the boy’s odyssey.

Greg, I have to admit, I greeted the arrival of this movie with skepticism and cynicism. I’m a big fan of Disney’s original 1967 version of The Jungle Book, and I saw no need to revisit such hallowed, near-perfect ground. Well, I’m here to tell our readers that as fabulous as the original movie was, this 2016 version is even more wondrous and spectacular. I’m reluctant to call any movie flawless, but this film was damn near perfect. I’m talking about character development, hero’s journey, supporting characters, CGI effects, you name it. I was dazzled and beyond satisfied.

Yeah, The Jungle Book was a much more sophisticated bit of animation than its predecessor. You will believe a tiger can talk. However, there were moments when I wondered if Mowgli was animated himself. When a film is clearly a cartoon (as was the 1967 version) you aren’t thrown out of the story by such questions. But there were times when I was asking myself “is this Mowgli a CGI or not?” And in those moments I was looking at the technology and not the story. It was a bit of a distraction.

But on the other hand, when you compare to a movie like Zootopia where the characters are animated – Jungle Book seems light-years ahead. The animals looked like lions and tigers and bears.

Also, the story itself is subtler than the original. The original story has Mowgli going from animal to animal trying on their lifestyle to see if he fits. Ultimately, Mowgli finds the man-tribe and realizes this is where he fits in. Bears should be with bears, and boys with boys.

But that message doesn’t fit with 21st century sensibilities. In 2016, Mowgli returns to his wolf pack. He is a member of a blended family and he is at home with his differences. He draws strength from the variety of the animal kingdom and he takes his place as an equal among different animals. It’s a more complex message.

The hero’s journey is compelling and non-traditional in some ways. It follows the classic journey in that Mowgli is sent away from his home and then encounters his bear friend Baloo and a couple of villainous obstacles in the form of the snake Kaa and the orangutan King Louie. Usually a hero is missing some inner quality that he must obtain in order to triumph. The Jungle Book turns this formula upside-down by identifying his human intelligence as his fatal flaw. At the beginning of the film, the animals with whom Mowgli lives are critical of his humanity and try to drill it out of him. It’s also one of the reasons why Shere Khan wants him gone.

But rather than shed this quality, Mowgli stays true to himself and uses his human cleverness to help himself and others. In fact, at the film’s climax, it is Mowgli’s ingenuity that saves him from Shere Kahn. Thus we have an interesting hero’s journey that turns the hero’s transformation on its head by underscoring the importance of not changing as a means of completing the journey. Instead of needing to find his missing inner quality, Mowgli has already been in possession of it and must hang onto it despite pressures to abandon it. For me this makes his hero path fascinating and unique.

That’s an interesting distinction. Mowgli gets many mentors in this story. Of course there’s Akela from the wolf pack, and Bagheera, later Baloo shows Mowgli how to enjoy the easy life. Ultimately, Mowgli listens to his inner self and combines all his mentors into a whole.

I enjoyed The Jungle Book more than I expected. Disney has taken animation to a new level with the photo realism of the jungle animals. I was occasionally distracted by trying to determine if I was looking at a real person or a CGI image, but other than that I was drawn into this story and completely enjoyed myself. I give The Jungle Book 4 out of 5 Reels.

Mowgli makes for an interesting hero. He starts out sheltered and naive and grows to become mature and confident. It was a gradual process and enjoyable to watch. I give Mowgli 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The mentors in this story, including the unwritten code of the wolf pack, gave Mowgli the direction he needed to overcome his lack of confidence and allowed him to grow into the person he was destined to be. I give the mentors in The Jungle Book 4 out of 5 Mentors.

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You’re right about the richness of the mentorship in this movie, and I have some observations to make about it before launching into my ratings. We’re learning that heroes receive assistance from many different types of “helpers”, for lack of a better term. A mentor is one such helper, and we define a mentor as an older figure who serves as the hero’s teacher. Sometimes these helpers assume a parental role; in this film, Akela plays that role with Mowgli. Sometimes these helpers are guides who know the terrain and who lead the hero to the special world; here Bagheera assumes that role. These guides could be called Charons, named after the ferrymen in Hades who guided people between worlds across the river Styx.

Other helpers are bodyguards who offer physical protection for the hero; this role aptly describes Baloo the bear. Still other helpers are coaches who physically train the hero; Akela and Bagheera both share those duties here. As you’ve pointed out, Greg, mentoring can also come in the form of an internalized code of conduct; the wolves code in this film plays a pivotal role in steering Mowgli toward noble behavior. So we have physical, transportational, parental, and didactic teachers all helping our hero survive the jungle and defeat Shere Khan. The Jungle Book is one of the richest mentor/helper stories we’ve encountered in the movies in 2016.

Overall, this movie is a true gem, one of Disney’s finest offerings of the past decade. This coming-of-age story is as old as storytelling itself, centering on a hero who must find his true identity. Mowgli cannot be trained to become a wolf, although he certainly makes the effort. His journey is a path toward manhood, and only through defeating the evil Shere Khan can his humanity be revealed. Every aspect of this movie is stirring and triumphant. It’s Reel Heroes Hall of Fame material to me, and so I’m more than happy to award this film the full 5 Reels out of 5.

As I’m mentioned, the hero’s journey is cleverly turned on its head, with Mowgli’s apparent flaw of “cleverness” being precisely the quality that must be cultivated for Mowgli to achieve success on his journey. So ironically, the transformation that our hero’s friends implore him to undergo at the beginning of the movie is exactly what he must avoid undergoing in order to succeed on his journey. Mowgli is a wonderful hero on a classic journey in every sense of the word. He merits the full 5 Heroes out of 5.

I needn’t delve again into the rich assortment of mentor-like characters who assist our young hero on his journey. These characters are an inspired collection of teachers with unique and appealing personalities, and they help Mowgli emotionally, mentally, and physically. They are among the best mentors in the movies we’ve seen this year, rivaling those seen in Eddie the Eagle I award Mowgli’s helpers a Mentor rating of 5 out of 5.

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