Raise your hand if you don’t know “The Jungle Book” (and then, run and do something about it, seriously).
It is an iconic story, probably one of the most well known by young people and adults across several different generations. Since the publication of the book by Rudyard Kipling (which was rather a collection of books) in 1894-5, the story has become part of our collective imaginary for its universal, powerful messages, and for the unforgettable characters that populate it.
The story has then received a Disney cartoon treatment in 1967 – which you may like or not, but surely had a huge impact on popular culture and contains many memorable moments. More recently it is again under the spotlight for not one, but two modern remakes.
A new movie, again by Disney, was published in April 2016, while Warner Bros. is producing their own treatment, now due to come out in autumn 2017.
Yes, it’s kind of sad (we really live in the remake/reboot era), but it also shows that this universal story still has a lot to teach us, and the time is always right for it to be told again.
In this post, I will try to examine The Jungle Book’s influence as a formation story, how it can used in education (in fact… it is), and its connections to the Hero’s Journey.
Without a doubt, the huge success of the story is due in large part to its cast of unforgettable characters. It is really hard to tell which one is the most memorable, beloved, or simply… cool. Let’s meet them!
He is, of course, the protagonist. It’s so easy to identify with him: a young boy (not yet a man, so girls can also find it easy to relate with him) who has to learn the ways of life. He is out of his natural environment – clearly he has crossed the threshold – and he is learning the many lessons that will make him grow and become an adult.
In doing so, he must learn how to relate with the others, how to unlock his personal potential, and what are his limits. Not all is nice and easy of course, and during his adventures he will also meet danger, and learn how to deal with fear.
The resemblance between the two characters is amazing (in the live action version, he is played by Neel Sethi), and this reflects also in the way they develop through the story arc. The main difference (and a pretty powerful one) will be at the ending, and we will discuss it later.
Akela (and the wolf pack)
The Wolf Pack is an essential part to the Jungle Book mythology, so much that it has been adopted as symbol of the Scouting movement worldwide (Baden-Powell was a personal friend of Kipling and asked directly his permission to use the Jungle Book’s universe as a base for the Scout culture).
They teach Mowgli his first lessons, embodied in the Law:
This is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back;
For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.
The wolves protect the boy, and nurture him during his childhood years.
Akela represents the Father, the wise leader who keeps the community together through diplomacy and charisma, rather than using violence. Mother Wolf is protective and caring. These parent figures are important for Mowgli’s early development but also limit his potential. They teach him that everything that is not “the wolf way” is forbidden. And so it must be, because who doesn’t follow The Law, endangers the pack.
But Mowgli is not a wolf, and to unfold his complete potential he will have to learn also how to master his human qualities.
That is why, alas, the wolves need to exit the scene when their role is fulfilled. They will leave space for more complex characters, who are better suited to introduce Mowgli to the challenges and the paradoxes of adult life. That happens with the Call to Adventure, when Mowgli has to leave the protection of the pack and venture into the jungle.
The first of the two mentor figures Mowgli meets, Bagheera represents wisdom, tradition, protection. Somehow it is the darker, more mysterious side of learning, at the same time protective and nurturing – but also forbidding. She of course reveals herself brave and strong when the occasion comes.
In Favreau’s movie, she also introduces spiritual education to Mowgli – represented by the encounters with the Elephants – one element that was completely missing in the original Disney version from 1967 (Elephants were there, mostly with a comic relief marginal role).
Maybe this was done on purpose, given the controversial nature of the topic. I am glad they received a more important and sacred role in the story.
The 1967’s movie portrayed him as a playful, cheerful buddy-like icon, and this has become somehow an intrinsic feature of the character. But there is more to him. Baloo embodies raw life energy; he knows when to break – “not necessarily break, but bend” – the rules; he knows how to cheat and enjoy life, and has a healthy dose of realism that makes him even more
This is his reaction when he hears for the first time The Law from the wolves:
He also teaches Mowgli how to fight.
In the books, even more. He will often beat up Mowgli “for educational purposes”, so much that from time to time Bagheera will have to ask him to go easier with the man cub.
Baloo, as well, knows how to use force, when necessary. It’s not his favourite option, but one needs to fight, if he wants to survive in the jungle. No character considers themselves an exception to that rule.
Furthermore, Baloo and Bagheera cannot exist without each other. They represent the spiritual parents, feminine and masculine energy, that are met during the education of the Hero.
Just like the yin and the yang, it is impossible to define precisely their boundaries. When one ends, the other begins. Bagheera is strict and yet protective, Baloo is playful and can be rough and insensitive. They have to be considered as a dyad: one cannot be without the other, and they simply exist, together.
The represent perfectly the Mentor qualities, that we all need to meet in our life journeys, and from whom we need to learn the most essential lessons.
They teach Mowgli the importance of respect for tradition and society, but also what are the bare necessities of life
The song is probably one of the most catchy ever written, and is included in both versions of the movie.
The sequences are almost identical. As it should be: when something is not broken, don’t fix it, right?
Is probably the one character that has been changed the most from the original Kipling’s material. In the book, Kaa is somewhat of a positive character, who helps Mowgli in critical situations and also teaches him some of the important lessons of the jungle.
Disney changed it into some kind of sidekick, who tries to capture the boy in his spires, but is also necessary because he reveals Mowgli’s origin story, how he got separated from the human community and found in the jungle.
He then comes to represent The Trickster, one of the elements of the Road of Trials, a test that the boy must overcome in order to learn about himself. However, when (s)he says – in Scarlett Johansson’s voice:
there is something so inviting and alluring, that makes it really hard to resist.
Well done, Mowgli.
Now, this character was absent in Kipling’s story (while the crazy monkey pack was there), and it has been completely invented in Disney’s version. It was an amazing, winning choice. That intuition has created an immortal character (which is represented very fondly in both modern versions of the story) and has contributed to unfold a very important aspect of the jungle life.
Apes need just one thing, to climb to the top of society. And the almighty King Louie makes it very clear when he meets Mowgli.
They can make a deal, so that the boy can remain in the jungle (therefore, refuse to grow, face his responsibilities as an adult and his destiny as a person) but in order to do that, he needs to reveal the secret of fire (“the red flower”) to the apes.
He will refuse to do so – in a classic Dark Cave moment of choice, where all the learning comes together for one defining moment – and so his course of action becomes clear. From this moment on, Mowgli is on the path to maturity.
King Louie really is memorable. In the 1967 version, he was voiced by the jazz and blues legend Louis Prima (some say that the character was added and developed just to give him a role in the movie)
while in the 2016 version, he is played by an equally memorable Christopher Walken.
Again, while in 1967 the King of the Apes falls into the likeable-but-not-fully-trustworthy cathegory, in 2016 Walken develops him with an Italian-American accent and flare, giving him a mafioso style (maybe reminiscent of Walken’s striking role in the Tarantino-written True Romance), which is at the same time distinctive and faithful to the story.
The new King Louie is definitely more threatening than alluring. He is not the kind of guy you would like to sit and have a few bananas with.
And yes, they sing that song!
The encounter with King Louie is very important for the story, because it is the moment for Bagheera and Baloo to join forces, overcome their differences and fight together to free Mowgli.
It is the last opportunity for them to act in their mentor roles. As a consequence for his choice of not giving the secret of fire to the apes, Mowgli receives freedom as a Reward. From that moment on, the boy will be able to fight his own battles.
Here enters the real antagonist. In the books, again, she is not the only fearsome entity of the forest, but certainly the most remarkable one. She also has her weakness, limping on one foot, and that is why she has to prey on humans rather than on the more agile gazelles.
In the movies, this feature has been transformed into a scar (very visible in the 2016 version), which she got while fighting humans.
In both cases, the character is very well developed and is essential to the story. Its origin is well described, and so it’s easier to understand her motives and the reasons for her hate towards humans – and Mowgli in particular. It is not just the bad guy, Shere Khan is the hero of her own story. A “dark prince” that results fascinating and memorable.
While in 1967’s version he gets some British charm thanks to the voice of George Sanders, and turns out as some kind of Shakespearian (or sometimes Monty Python) villain,
I found the 2016 version even more powerful, a real antagonist who is not afraid to take extreme measures to achieve her goals. Idris Elba gives him voice and personality creating a real, definitive antagonist.
I also love the way Favreau describes her as part of the jungle life, respectful of its rules and not alien to it. Mowgli, on the other hand, is. And that is where the conflict begins.
The Story: differences between versions and the conclusion.
I think that the fundamental value of the story remains the same, in each of its versions.
Whether you love and prefer to stick to the original book sources, the classic animation movie from the Sixties, or its more modern version, the material is timeless and is perfect to teach and inspire different generations all around the world.
The books are certainly a product of their age. Kipling’s connections to the British colonial culture are present in the story (and result controversial to our contemporary sensibility), and at the same time the original plot has less filters – life in the jungle is more dangerous – and the characters show more complexity. It is only in the books that Mowgli earns the title of “Master of the Jungle” from the Elephants (it’s the archetypal status that Campbell calls “Master of the Two Worlds“).
The 1967 version is… well, exactly what you would expect from a cartoon produced in the Sixties. It’s full of singing animals, and the whole story seems to be tuned down to please children and reassure audiences, rather than to challenge or inspire them. And yet, the lessons are there and the fundamental value is not altered. I find that its main weakness is in how it represents the complicated balance of Mowgli’s development as a human: it’s a bit superficial. In other words, the boy is more childish in this version of the story, and even in the ending, when he finally joins the human village, he doesn’t seem to do it as the consequence of a mature, conscious choice but rather because… “he is hooked” by his own nature (and the girl’s sweet eyes and smile).
The 2016 version is still a Disney movie – so don’t expect too much of a trauma while watching it – but is a more modern and richer version of the story. I was fascinated by the characters’ development (even the minor ones) and by the way it introduces the complex moral issues that Mowgli faces while growing.
His human nature is symbolised by the tricks that come so natural to him (and are forbidden by Akela), and by fire – the “red flower” that gives the capacity to rise at the top of the food chain but at the same time holds so much destructive power and must be forbidden in the jungle.
In order to grow, and to become a full adult, he will have to learn how to master his human side, without forgetting what he learned in the jungle – so achieving the legendary status of Master of the Two Worlds, and completing the Hero’s Journey.
But then – surprisingly! – the movie fails right at the end. Why the ending?
Favreau somehow opted for a reassuring – and quite shallow – “they all lived happily thereafter” ending, where Mowgli decided to stay with his friends in the jungle, instead of going back to the human village.
I really couldn’t understand the reasons for this choice, which in my opinion betrays the original material, waters down the content of the whole story, and weakens the scope of its learning value. The natural conclusion of the story is that Mowgli, after completing his Road of Trials and realising his full potential, decides to accept his life challenge and go back to the village to start a New Life there.
This was fully respected in the 1967’s movie, and also helped to reflect on a critical moment in everybody’s life: when it’s time to let the loved ones go, and live their own life.
This aspect is completely absent in the latest movie, and I really cannot understand why this decision was taken, in a story that otherwise is very mature and more complex than its predecessor. What a pity.
Anyway – this is a story that inspired and keeps to fascinate generations for more than a century now, and will continue to do so, version after version. And that is the nature of a great story.
If you love it, I hope you liked this article too, and it might help you to get some new perspective or elements to include its power in your work as storytellers.
Thank you for reading!
For more differences between the book and the first Disney version: here.
For a comparison between the two film version: here.
For more information about the Warner Bros. movie, to be released in 2017: here.
All credits for this material go to the respective authors.