Review: The Jungle Book (2016)

An emotional farewell between Mowgli (Neel Sethi) and his adoptive mother Raksha (voice: Lupita Nyong’o)

Nature, Nurture, and Necessity


The animated classic The Jungle Book (1967) is probably one of my favorite classic Disney movies. It was one of the few Disney movies that we didn’t own at home but I could watch at my grandparents, and I always loved revisiting the adventure of Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo, the military elephants, and yes, even the wickedly debonair Shere Khan. So it was with a mix of excitement and trepidation that I entered this live action (sort of) update starring newcomer Neel Sethi as man-cub Mowgli.

The visuals. Oh man, the visuals. I’ve never seen a panther and tiger brawling, but I can’t imagine it’s far off from what’s here – and I can’t say I would want to see it. If it weren’t for the moving mouths of the animals when delivering their dialogue, you would have to believe that they were real. The voice casting for the animals is impeccable: Bill Murray as Baloo, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, and Scarlett Johanssen as Kaa are all inspired choices. Idris Elba brings a powerful and truly terrifying presence in his voice work as the villainous Shere Khan.

The film’s weaker points are similar to the animated classic: it drags a bit in moments early on and the pacing is a bit off in the first half. Neel Sethi is excellent, but there are a few clunky moments in dialogue exchange where it’s very clear he was talking to a green screen. But that is not the young actor’s fault by any means.

We chose to see this one without our son, not knowing what all themes might be explored. For younger kids, the animal fights could potentially be frightening. The King Louie segment (voiced by Christopher Walken) has none of the slapstick of the original and is a bit creepy and made my wife jump in her seat at one particular moment. For trauma kids, there are even more worries. This outing explores themes untouched by the original, and there is a tremendous amount of trauma going on here, especially in terms of father figures for Mowgli, including deaths, separation, exploitation, and rejection. The scene where Mowgli says farewell to his adoptive mother Raksha is touching, but could be hard to watch for some children, especially those with attachment issues. Overall, these plot points are a lot to take in and parents of trauma kids in particular should be ready to have discussions before and after.

The movie’s greatest triumph is the theme of Mowgli’s nature as a human in an animal world. As a human, he has both weaknesses and strengths that set him apart – and at odds – from his adoptive family, the wolves. Yet at the same time, he has a deep, spiritual and physical connection to the jungle world that he is loathe to part with because it is so ingrained in his nature. The more scientists learn about the brain and human development, the more we learn that there is no such battle of nature vs. nurture – rather, the two are inextricably woven together in a dance to make us who we are as individuals. Mowgli has two bare necessities: to be fully human and yet to be fully part of the jungle. And while the film’s resolution of this struggle is a departure from the original, it is beautiful and perfect.

On the spiritual plane, this tension is a helpful lens in thinking of the hypostatic union – the truth of Christ’s dual humanity and divinity, two natures in perfect unity. Our Lord cannot be human apart from being God, just as Mowgli cannot be human apart from being jungle. Christ’s duality of nature is what makes Him the source of salvation, and without giving away too much, Mowgli’s duality of nature is what leads to his salvation. Shere Khan’s interpretation here is very Lucifer-esque. He speaks with a smooth voice, whispers deceitful tales, and his only desire is to destroy man.

But our hope is not in a man-cub, but in a God-man who is able to save us in the midst of our own jungle of life.

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:14-16)

Our barest and greatest necessity is satisfied in Christ, who by His nature and nurture is able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses and deliver us from our worries and our strife.


(P.S. the opening animation and end credits are really, really cool.)

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