Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Jungle Book

I had a strong emotional reaction to the new “Jungle Book” (2016) movie. So, content warnings for: emotional intensity, Jungle Book spoilers.

As an adaptation of an adaptation, there’s plenty to say about JB, as it takes from both the Kipling novel and the 1967 animated movie, each of which have a lot of attachment for various people. (And numerous “Lion King” references.) I know a lot more about the 1967 movie than the book, so my main comparison was to that.

One of the biggest changes was the wolf pack, led by Akela (with the mothering aspect represented by Raksha), who have a much bigger role than in the previous movie, and different interactions than the book. Which is fine, movies should be judged on their own after all. The wolf pack looms over a lot of the movie, changing the plot and highlighting different aspects (and being part of the radically different ending.) For instance, the wolf pups are the cutest thing in a movie that emphasizes the cute CGI animals.

The wolf pack harps on the Law of the Jungle a lot, particularly as it applies to wolves. Characters repeat several times the mantra “the strength of the wolf is the pack, the strength of the pack is the wolf.” There’s no mistaking the political themes of that. (Baloo, the cynical hedonist, even refers to it as “propaganda”.)

This sort of tribalist, corportatist ethos  (let’s avoid the f-word to keep from find mind killing) isn’t necessarily appealing to me, but it’s interesting to see where the movie goes with it.

Mowgli feels responsibility to fit in with the wolf pack as part of this law. And in the first confrontation with Sher Khan, the wolf pack thinks they must protect Mowgli, because he is part of the pack. Sher Khan threatens that soon they must give up Mowgli, or he will fight the entire pack. The pack seriously debates this for a while, and Mowgli sees it, and volunteers to leave in order to keep the pack safe. Akela accepts the boy’s self-exile.

They didn’t (and probably wouldn’t have) kicked him out directly, but they didn’t leave him much choice either. For anyone who actually believes “the strength of the pack is the wolf”, it was a pretty cowardly performance. What does the pack mean if “well, if it’s dangerous to protect one of ours… that’s different.” In that case it’s not a principle to live by, it really is just propaganda where the pack demands loyalty but gives nothing in return.

The movie seems to agree with this, as things suddenly go downhill for the pack. Sher Khan is not satisfied with the exile, and confronts the pack regardless. Akela tries to placate Khan, but they no longer have any philosophical supremacy in this encounter. Akela stands for nothing but peaceful preservation, and Sher Khan easily kills him. He then takes over the pack, replacing their lack of philosophical principle with pure power-pragmatism.

Mowgli later finds out about this, and goes into a demonic rage, stealing fire from the hellish man village so he can fight Sher Khan. It is, at least briefly, his Authentic Evil moment.

Once he arrives back at the pack, and sees what he has done (started a forest fire), he hesitates and the tiger goes in to kill him. *Then* do his friends, and the wolf pack, realize that they should have been standing with him. The animals of the jungle begin repeating “the strength of the wolf is the pack, the strength of the pack is the wolf” and engage Sher Khan in combat, getting the upper hand. That’s one of the primary moral lessons of the movie.

(The other lesson is a pure technological-positivism, saying that Mowgli’s ability to use tools to construct inventions and engineer solutions is a valuable trait the jungle needs. That becomes the solution to the second half of the fight.)

Which in the end leads to a sort of moral-melange: tribal-loyalty plus technological-ingenuity being the favored traits.

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