What does a toddler orphaned in the jungle need to survive and thrive? Why, just the bare necessities, of course!
In the case of young Mowgli, those necessities consist of the jungle animals who’ve lovingly adopted him as one of their own. There’s wise Bagheera, the sleek black panther who discovered the man-cub (as he’s called) alone in the forest after his father was killed. Then there’s a pack of noble wolves, led by Akela and Raksha, to whom Bagheera gave the boy to be raised.
Mowgli knows he’s not really a wolf. But as a beloved member of the pack, he runs with them and acts like one, even reciting the Law of Jungle with them: “Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and true as the sky. And the wolf that keeps it will prosper, but the wolf that breaks it will die. … The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
Indeed, that very strength—exemplified by the loyal love of Akela and Raksha, as well as Bagheera—has kept Mowgli safe and sound throughout his boyhood years.
But the jungle isn’t safe.
Lurking in its otherwise idyllic underbrush is a predator bristling with ferocity and bitterness, the tiger Shere Khan. That mighty feline lost an eye and suffered scars to his face in an encounter with a man who wielded fire (the “red flower,” as the animals call it). Shere Khan has no sympathy for the suggestion that the man-cub Mowgli can grow up among the jungle’s furry denizens without bringing calamity down upon them all.
Thus, Shere Khan demands that the wolves turn the boy over to him … or else. As the pack debates whether or not to defend him, Mowgli makes a decision to go in search of his own people. It’s his way of protecting the only family he’s ever known.
But Shere Khan doesn’t merely want the boy gone. He wants him dead.
If Mowgli is to avoid that fearsome fate—while also escaping the clutches of a hypnotizing snake and a gregarious ape—he’s going to need more help than the wolves and even Bagheera can provide.
Which is where a certain loafing, conniving, honey-loving bear named Baloo comes in. He’s a bear who’s going to be an absolute necessity for Mowgli’s survival.
Love, loyalty and a willingness to sacrifice bind many of the jungle denizens together. Bagheera and the wolves long to protect Mowgli from Shere Khan’s hatred, and they repeatedly place their lives on the line to do so. That said, Mowgli is horrified at the thought that anyone would be injured trying to shield him, and he decides on his own to seek out people like himself in order to spare the wolf pack from the wrath of Khan. His “mother,” Raksha, is heartbroken by the decision (even though she understands that it’s what must happen). As her adopted man-cub prepares to leave (with Bagheera dutifully volunteering to take him to a human village), Raksha tells Mowgli lovingly, “Never forget this: You are mine. … No matter where you go or what they call you, you will always be my son.”
Bagheera, for his part, acts as a father figure to Mowgli, trying to impart lessons and practical wisdom for the boy to internalize. Likewise, the wolves frequently repeat the Law of the Jungle, which emphasizes the interdependent relationship of each individual wolf to the pack and its greater good.
As a human with opposable thumbs, Mowgli has a natural penchant for making tools—an ability that unnerves his animal protectors. Accordingly, the wolves and Bagheera (wrongly) discourage him from using what they dub “tricks.” Baloo, on the other hand, encourages the boy to embrace his creative tool-making side. Baloo’s got his own selfish, conniving motivation for doing so, of course. Still, the bear understands that Mowgli is fundamentally different from the jungle animals, and he encourages the boy to embrace who he is. It’s an idea that Bagheera eventually warms to after witnessing the lad ingeniously using vine ropes to help rescue a baby elephant that’s fallen into a pit.
Baloo, as noted, is a self-serving character. But he does grow and change. He increasingly becomes more noble as he works with Bagheera to protect their young charge and discern what’s best for him. In the end, many animals in the jungle, along with Mowgli, bravely join forces to challenge Shere Khan’s wicked tyranny and murderous threats.
Bagheera and Mowgli encounter a group of elephants, and the panther instructs the man-cub to bow as a sign of respect because the “elephants made everything but you.” King Louie (the ape) and his myriad minions live in the ruins of a massive temple with Hindu iconography inside. The snake Kaa’s mesmerizing eyes depict a flashback vision of the death of Mowgli’s father. And speaking of Kaa, parallels can be drawn between the way he “seduces” Mowgli—promising him everything that’s good while he’s really just preparing to eat him—and the way Satan interacts with humanity.
Intense and suspenseful conflicts turn up throughout. Shere Khan brutally and unexpectedly kills one creature, and we see the animal’s body flung mercilessly off a cliff. The striped feline tangles repeatedly with Bagheera, Baloo and the wolves. Animals on both sides of those battles are nastily bitten, knocked down, rammed and raked with sharp claws. A flashback shows the battle between a human and Shere Khan in which the big cat is badly burned and the man is killed. Baloo and Kaa fight; Baloo and Bahgeera brawl with King Louie’s lackeys; Mowgli tries to fend off Shere Khan and ends up on the receiving end of the tiger’s claws, which cut his chest.
Mowgli is perpetually in some kind of peril it seems. Shere Khan chases him. Kaa comes very close to making a meal of him after mesmerizing and squeezing him. Louie and Co. kidnap him and play catch with him in the upper limbs of trees. Then, when the boy makes a run for it (with Baloo’s and Bagheera’s help), let’s just say that Louie’s pursuit brings down the house all around them.
Mowgli’s stung by bees, nearly trampled by a herd of stampeding water buffalo and almost drowned by a torrential rain that creates a massive mudslide Mowgli tries to avoid by jumping into a raging river. (Mowgli, who wears only a loincloth, is covered in scratches and cuts.) The man-cub unintentionally sparks a hungry forest fire that gobbles up quite a bit of ground and results in even more peril for the animals (claiming the life of at least one).
One use each of “oh my gosh” and “what the heck.”
When Mowgli nearly decides to join a village of humans, they’re depicted as raucously laughing and drinking around a raging fire.
Mowgli seems intimidated by the humans’ actions, or is perhaps repulsed by what he witnesses. So he steals a torch and runs away from the village. Elsewhere, it’s said that the humans’ use of fire gives them the power to destroy. It’s a true statement, of course, but humans are clearly being vilified here. Indeed, it’s suggested that nothing comes from humanity except death and destruction.
Bagheera rightly calls out Baloo as a “con artist” for the way he manipulates Mowgli into securing food for him. Baloo licks honey off a pig who exclaims rapturously, “Oh yes, exfoliate me!” After Mowgli is inadvertently pricked by a porcupine’s quill, the embarrassed creature tries to make it better, saying (among other things), “I could pee on it.”
Does a lot of what you’ve just read feel familiar? It should. The Jungle Book is an audacious—and kind of awesome at times—update of the Rudyard Kipling-written, Disney-appropriated classic tale of the man-cub Mowgli and his jungle animal friends (and enemies).
Violent clashes between both beasts and man—shown as if “for real” here, instead of as a cartoony catastrophe—will overwhelm and frighten younger or more sensitive moviegoers. (As might Kaa’s misty, creepy, swampy abode.) There’s a small handful of twisted-up worldview concerns to navigate as well.
But just as the Mouse House did with the live-action reboot of Cinderella in 2015, this 2016 iteration of The Jungle Book delivers a rollicking, breathtaking update to a beloved story about a boy and his remarkable—unlikely—companions. (They’re brought to life with computer animation.) And their adventure reinforces important themes about what it means to be family, love one another, resist temptation and sacrifice our own desires when necessary for the good of others.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.