Technological Man and The Jungle Book

by David Ottlinger

**For those who have not seen the recent Jungle Book film, this essay includes Spoilers.

When I was in school, I attended a lecture by a well-respected historian. The subject of the lecture was gardens in eighteenth and nineteenth century France and England. [1] It wasn’t as dull as it might sound, and the implications were surprisingly far reaching. The professor noted that while French gardens were organized and regimented, English gardens were comparatively unruly, allowing plants to grow more unevenly and on their own. The former, it was argued, befitted an absolutist and mercantile society.  The tulips in the Tuileries are not free to find their own path; an order is imposed upon them. The English gardens, by contrast, befitted a democratic and capitalist society. The English gardener did not feel the need to contrive and impose his own order; he expected a more complex and organic order to emerge under his guidance, just as men formed a natural order in assemblies and markets (at least according to thinkers like Mandeville and Hume).

My point is that cultures can reveal themselves in the smallest, most modest details. Keep this in mind, as I attempt to locate some fairly grand themes in a movie aimed at children. Specifically, I will try to connect the recent Jungle Book movie to global warming. Technology, as we shall see, is a consistent theme of the film, and any work of art that focuses on this theme cannot help but reflect our current anxieties about our own technologies and their perils. But while I believe The Jungle Book reflects such anxieties, I also think that it fails to resolve them or even bring them sufficiently to a head. Instead, it seems to offer glib answers or at least, inadequate responses to the problems it raises.

If democracy and monarchy can be found in a garden, climate crises can be found a minor film. If you can accept that, press on.

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Before getting started, a brief synopsis and review is in order. The film follows the basic structure of the 1967 animated film of the same name. Rather than following the more episodic pattern of Rudyard Kipling’s novel, it settles on the single story of Mowgli and Shere Kahn. Mowgli is a human child (or Man-cub as the animals call him), who has been adopted by a pack of wolves. Shere Kahn, a widely feared tiger, aims to kill Mowgli, and while he is motivated by an inveterate hatred of humans, he claims to be defending the jungle from the man that Mowgli will one day become. Seeing that the wolf pack will be unable to defend him, Bagheera, a benevolent panther and Mowgli’s benefactor, attempts to lead Mowgli out of the jungle to be adopted, as he hopes, by the humans in the “Man-village.” Bagheera loses track of Mowgli, during which time Mowgli drifts into a hedonistic and idle existence under the influence of Baloo, a benevolent but shiftless bear. After a brief interlude, in which Mowgli is kidnapped by monkeys under the influence of the menacing King Louie, Bagheera tracks Mowgli down. Mowgli discovers from Bagheera that the Wolf-pack may be in danger, even if he flees. Shere Kahn will not accept Mowgli’s banishment and will continue to threaten the Wolf-pack, until Mowgli is killed. Accordingly Mowgli decides to face Shere Kahn. A confrontation ensues in which Shere Kahn is killed, allowing Mowgli to safely rejoin the pack.

This resembles the earlier film almost exactly in its outline, but in tone it is strikingly different. I have always believed that the best films for children are those that deal with some kind of serious external threat. Many of the old fairy tales are notoriously bloody and harsh. Likewise, the most successful of Pixar’s string of remarkable films put their protagonists in considerable danger. In Ratatouille, the lead character, a rat, lives in a world of constant threat from cats and humans. Finding Nemo, most strikingly, begins with the father of our protagonist losing his mate and entire clutch of eggs, save one. Even the classic animated Disney films, mild by comparison, menace their heroes with villains, whom we are sure are genuine threats.

But nothing I have seen compares to this. Every scene of this kids’ movie bristles with implicit violence. Early in the film, the many animals of the village declare a truce in the vicinity of “Peace-rock,” which becomes visible only during a drought, when a certain lake’s water-level — evidently the main source of water for the area — falls beneath a given point. When Peace-rock appears, the animals decline to hunt each other near the lake, so that all may reach the water safely. While this truce is in effect, Bagheera comes to drink from the lake. He passes a group of antelope who are startled by his presence. They nervously remind him of the peace. “I know the law,” he remarks grimly. Right at the outset, then, we are reminded that even our most benevolent character will soon return to hunting and killing for sustenance. Likewise, watching Idris Elba’s stalking, thuggish Shere Kahn, I couldn’t help but laugh thinking of George Sander’s staid, gentlemanly take on the same character. (See for yourself! [2]) Even Baloo, a lovable oaf in the animated feature, is significantly darker. Still basically good, he is now a somewhat suspect manipulator. He cons Mowgli into gathering honey for him from dangerous hives, by lying about the risks. In a stray line, we learn that apparently he has in the past conned a number of hapless monkeys to perform the same feat—which they did not survive.

For these reasons and others, I found the first half of the film bracing. The constant threat of danger and strong story-telling, aided by remarkable effects, sustained a real sense of tension and interest. But at about the half-way point, everything began to fall apart.  Baloo, though charming and funny, is too obviously Bill Murray in a bear suit. Worse, a couple of the songs from the earlier film were inexplicably retained. Characters breaking into song requires a certain heightened or exaggerated reality that does not characterize this film. Even if it does involve talking animals, the overall tendency is towards realism. The animals are animated very realistically and in stunning detail, and their lives, as discussed above, are also realistically portrayed. Yes, they have language and politics, but they also face starvation and death by thirst; they must hunt, avoid predators, etc. In this atmosphere, the sudden shifts into musical territory are fairly jarring. Bill Murray’s Baloo breaking into “The Bare Necessities,” makes at least some sense, insofar as it occurs during an idyll, in which Baloo and Mowgli are free to relax. But totally bizarre is King Louie belting out “I Wanna’ Be Like You.” The original King Louie (created by Disney, not Kipling) was something of an epicurean — a jazzy sybarite, played by Louis Prima. This King Louie is a threatening gangster — a fitting role for Christopher Walken – but he should not be singing swing jazz. (Indeed, Christopher Walken should not be singing at all. An accomplished dancer, he cannot sing a note.) These questionable choices and some odd story developments (on which more shortly) do much to derail the film. The tightly wound beginning may be worth the price of entry, but it ultimately raises many expectations only to disappoint them. The Jungle Book can be applauded for taking risks, but not for carrying them off.

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More interesting than the film’s middling artistic success is its development of a novel theme. The film picks up on the fact that technology was always at the center of the story. The most important technology is fire, or, to the animals, “red-flower.” Crucially, this technology and all technologies are the unique province of Man, as the animals realize. Mowgli is constantly — and apparently naturally — creating technologies. In a very early scene, he creates a bowl which he can throw into the lake in order to gather water at a distance. His lupine father immediately disapproves, calling it a “trick.”  Bagheera adopts a similar attitude and chides Mowgli, when he finds him making ropes and other devices. Instinctively, the animals are nervous and uncomfortable around artifice. Their reactions constantly set Mowgli apart, and what motivates their reaction is technology.

Fifty years ago, Stanley Kubrick argued that technology is the essential and distinctive feature of Man. In a sequence appropriately titled “The Dawn of Man,” a chimp becomes a human before our eyes. Flailing a bone about, he slowly realizes that it may be used as a weapon. (This realization is set to Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.) Afterward, the chimp begins to walk upright in recognition of this change in its nature. Likewise, employing a trope that would become familiar in science fiction, the most human character is not an actual human being, but rather an artificial intelligence, HAL 9000. For Kubrick, Man is the technological animal. HAL, by being technology, is more human than the actual humans. The biological humans with whom HAL shares his environment, by contrast, must engage in eating, drinking and (in one memorable sequence) jogging, things that at this point in our development are now largely tangential to their existence. HAL is essential humanity, shorn of the incidentals. This Jungle Book implicitly agrees with this premise, or at least with the premise that Man is essentially the technological animal.

Bagheera senses this and tries to suppress it. The film opens with a sequence in which Bagheera is trying to train Mowgli to be a better wolf. Mowgli is, understandably, falling behind his brothers, who are of course natural wolves. At one point Bagheera asks why Mowgli can’t act more like a wolf, as if the answer were not obvious to both. In a moment with particular pathos, Bagheera relates to Mowgli the jungle creatures’ creation myth. As a group of elephants passes, Bagheera instructs Mowgli to bow his head. When Mowgli asks why, Bagheera says:

The elephants created this jungle. Where they made furrows with their tusks, the rivers ran. Where they blew with their trunks the leaves fell. They made all that belongs: the mountains, the trees, the birds in the tree. But they did not make you. That is why you must go.[3]

In this scheme Mowgli is not one of the things that “belongs.”  Significantly, he is contrasted with a resolutely natural order. Every enumerated thing, rivers, leaves, mountains, trees, and birds, is paradigmatically natural. Mowgli is something else; something that came to be, apart from the natural order.

As Mowgli inadvertently escapes the strong discipline of Bagheera and the Wolf-pack, he is freer to explore his nature. Baloo is by nature permissive. He encourages Mowgli to act more like a Man. Baloo does not have the others’ scruples and besides, he only stands to get more honey from Mowgli’s machinations. Mowgli, for his part, takes full advantage of the new space. He soon builds something like an elevator, supported by a system of ropes, allowing him to access more beehives than Baloo could ever have hoped to alone. Upon returning, Bagheera is appalled.

At this point, the film really began to disappoint me. By now we had already seen that the animals are instinctively averse to technologies. But we have not seen what motivates or justifies this natural fear, and Bagheera would be the perfect character to explain it. He is both thoughtful and humane, with a deep sense of what the jungle is and should be. He is the one who relates to Mowgli the creation myth and the sense of the natural order that comes with it. He strongly affirms the jungle’s laws. Yet in upbraiding Mowgli, he articulates no clear reason why what he has done was wrong. I kept waiting for Bagheera to say the obvious thing. If Mowgli and Baloo knock down all the hives, there will be no hives next year and Baloo and the other bears will go hungry. Implicitly the entire jungle exists based on a delicate balance, as the temporary peace struck in the face of drought illustrates. The animals survive collectively by respecting this balance, even at their peril. Technology interrupts this balance. Yet, Bagheera says no such thing.

When the dangers of technology are illustrated, they are done so in dramatic fashion. When Mowgli determines that he must face Shere Kahn, he goes to the Man-village in search of “red-flower,” which he obtains by stealing a torch. Thus armed, he runs through the forest in search of the tiger. But by the time he finds him, Mowgli makes a terrible discovery. Running through the jungle, he has accidentally started a massive brush fire. Shere Kahn exults, and the animals instinctively cower. Their worst fears and Shere Kahn’s strongest warnings are seemingly justified. At this point we are faced with a genuinely fascinating dilemma. Mowgli needs technology. At first it seemed merely to be an irrepressible part of his nature. Now it supplies him with the only available means to protect himself and his family. Yet his use of this technology comes at a terrible price. He has inadvertently destroyed a good part of the home he sought to protect. His essential nature is revealed to be a destructive one. In the face of this dilemma he must act, and he does, defeating Shere Kahn with the help of technology.

Sadly, what this does is essentially renounce the dilemma the film had so carefully constructed: Mowgli must either renounce technology and live without its benefits or else embrace technology and live with its dangers. Instead, he does neither. As a result, the film’s best questions go unanswered. In what could have been a remarkable ending, we get a tedious sequence in which Mowgli manages to best Shere Kahn with a trick involving ropes in the tree tops. Ironically, this embodies what Bagheera and the wolves must have meant when they called Mowgli’s technology “tricks.”  Mowgli prevails by rejecting the concept of fair play. He defeats the larger, stronger, and faster Shere Kahn by luring him to his death.

I also found it disappointing that by the film’s end, Bagheera’s solemn parable is ignored and Mowgli is allowed to remain in the jungle. Even the light-hearted animated film did not do this. Bagheera was essentially right when he maintained that Mowgli does not belong to their order. Mowgli’s nature is to create technologies, and technologies jeopardize their environment. When Shere Kahn did not accept Mowgli’s banishment but insisted on his death, he revealed himself to be motivated not by the jungle’s well-being, but by bigotry and hatred. As such he was marked for death. But Shere Kahn also had a point in wanting to drive Man from the jungle, and when a film’s most benevolent and most malevolent characters agree on something, it generally should prove to be right. But not here. Mowgli is allowed to remain, and if we want to know how or why, the film is not interested in telling us.

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However, the more I think about the film’s easy evasions, the more understandable they seem. After all, we are in danger of burning down our own jungle but seem unable to give up the luxuries and protection of our own “red-flower.”  We face the same hard choice that Mowgli did — to give up our technology or accept what comes with it. We too easily dismiss this dilemma and continue on our desired path, hoping the problem will somehow resolve itself. It would be easy to be superior or snarky, but in truth, I have no solutions either.

References

[1] I am going mostly by memory here but I found this article to suggest I didn’t make it all up:

http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/a-war-of-roses-the-french-vs-english-garden-168600

[2] Original:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YXjviLBYrS8

The new film:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OD3CLzPER34

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKRr_f85shA

Categories: Essay, Essays

5 Comments »

  1. I always preferred the Korda bros./ Sabu version. Even as a kid, I felt the Disney cartoon pandering. (The Honest Trailers guys at YouTube have a spot-on commentary on it.) The Sabu film gives a broader context (including the importance of telling stories),, and reminds us that the choice is as much Mowgli’s as that of his non-human friends. And the choice is clear. It is not simply the technologies of the humans that are suspect, but the motivations impelling the development of these technologies. We don’t want to live with the earth – we want to control it (to satisfy our own greed); and apparently many wish to destroy it (for the same reason). Whether this problem can ever be truly confronted, let alone changed, is a question. Perhaps only time will tell. Or perhaps it’s already too late.

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  2. ej,

    Never saw that version. I do like honest trailers but Red Letter Media are the best movie youtubers. Just a heads up.

    There is some suggestion is this film that humans are as a rule reckless and indulgent. When Mowgli peers into the village he seems to see humans drinking and cavorting against a sea of fire. It suggests decadence but the idea is never really explored. I find it more interesting to think about Mowgli who uses technology with the best of intentions and still has to face terrible consequences.

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  3. a brilliant essay. i haven’t bothered with the new film, i am not a fan of these big budget attempts at renewal, i watched the original as a child & adult & it must be preserved as original for me. i suppose technological progress isn’t for everyone.

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