Like most people, I grew up watching Disney’s 1967 animated classic, The Jungle Book. It was one of my favorites. I’m also incredibly skeptical of all the remakes/reboots/spin-offs/sequels/prequels/everything-elsequels that have bombarded moviegoers the last couple of years (which aren’t stopping anytime soon), and a skeptic of excessive CGI. Imagine my horror, then, when one year ago Disney released the trailer for their live-action, CGI-soaked Jungle Book remake. I admit, I died a little inside.
But this week we watched it with our youth group at church and I’ve had a metanoeō, a change of heart. It’s good. Shockingly good. Not just good in the sense that it’s well-done filmmaking or creative entertainment, although it’s certainly both those things. The CGI is beautiful, the scale is breath-taking, and the voice actors are perfect. But what surprised me the most is its Judeo-Christian worldview on the nature of man and his role in creation.
I can’t speak on behalf of the filmmakers or their intent, but the implications are hard to miss. These implications were not minor points or subtle references, but the heartbeat of the film itself. This is a film that deserves to be watched and discussed for five Jungle-sized reasons.
#1. The uniqueness, ingenuity, and authority of man over creation.
Most false religions fall into one of two camps: they either make too much of man or too little. Either they equate man with God, give man the authority of God, or promise man he can become like God; or they minimize man as an insignificant part of nature where he either shares a spiritual brotherhood with the plants or animals or he evolved from slime and is no better than monkeys. Either way, man’s relationship to the divine is confused.
The Jungle Book rightly nails the balance. On one hand, man is a part of creation. Mowgli is flesh and blood and bone and interacts with the rest of nature as a fellow created being. Man is not God. This Creator-creature distinction is one of the fundamental doctrines of biblical Christianity (Ps. 8:3-4).
Yet at the same time, man stands apart from the rest of creation (Ps. 8:5-8). He is different. Although Mowgli tries to act like a wolf, there is no denying his humanness. At one point Bagheera even tells Mowgli, “The elephants created this jungle…but they did not make you.” This is not just a biological difference, as though man were simply another breed of animal, but an ontological one. Man is neither pure beast nor pure spirit, but as theologian Michael Horton puts it, “…we are created as psychosomatic (soul-body) whole, as persons. Our bodies (including our brain) and souls are not separate compartments, but interactive aspects of our personal existence and activity.”
Echoing the words of Genesis 1:28, Mowgli is also endowed with the ability to subdue and cultivate creation like no one else. Bagheera constantly chides him for his “tricks”—inventions that seem like magic to the other creatures. King Louie, wanting more power, goes to Mowgli to learn man’s secret. Shere Khan hates man precisely because he knows what mankind is capable of. All nature recognizes the power, intelligence, ingenuity, and otherness of Mowgli. I almost stood up and cheered when, at the movie’s climax, Mowgli tells Bagheera he wants to fight Shere Khan like a wolf, to which Bagheera responds, “Fight him like a man.”
The Jungle Book, then, is the anti-Brother Bear (“the story of a boy who became a man, by becoming a bear”) or Tarzan (“We’re exactly the same”). Yes, man is mortal. But he is also a living soul made in the image of God, and he is invested with authority as God’s viceroy on earth.
#2. Man’s unique position can be used for great evil or for great good.
One of the coolest things about The Jungle Book is its treatment of fire. What was a convenient plot device in the cartoon takes center stage in this adaption, as the “red flower” represents all the good or evil that mankind is capable of. When used wrongly, his position enables him to kill, abuse, and destroy.
But it also gives him the ability to think, build, creative, cultivate, and help. Mowgli’s “tricks” are used to collect food and water, save a baby elephant, and defeat a foe. Man’s authority does not need to be a bad thing. It can be utilized to improve, enhance and even protect the world of which he has been made a steward.
This is very different from most nature-loving Disney films, which often portray men as the villains who mess everything up. It also avoids any sort of environmentalist overtones or save-the-planet propaganda. In the end, Mowgli’s “tricks” are just as capable of good as they are of evil.
Certainly man’s abuse of the world has led to city slums, worldwide war, and even nuclear threats. But man’s rightful utilization has led to beautiful art, helpful inventions, stunning cities, life-saving medicine, and prosperous societies. Man’s prominence in creation, and his cultivation of it, is not an evil—it is designed to be something beneficial.
Ultimately, a happy ending does not come from Mowgli ceasing to be man or becoming more one with nature, but embracing his special role as a man and using it for good.
#3. Man faces temptation from the serpent who promises pleasure but delivers only death.
One of the film’s most frightening and delightful scenes is when Mowgli encounters Kaa, the ginormous python. As our human hero pursues fruit to eat, the serpent slinks out of the shadows and soothingly sympathizes with all the supposed injustice inflicted upon the man by his authority figure. Then the serpent lures the man into a false sense of trust by promising all the comforts and pleasures of his heart’s desire, if only he’ll trust in the serpent…not realizing that the coils of death are actually closing in around him. Sound familiar?
The similarities to Genesis 3 are too strong to miss.
Some reviewers disliked the use of Scarlett Johansson’s soft, seductive voice in the role of Kaa, but I loved it for the same reason that I loved Mel Gibson’s decision to have a woman play Satan in The Passion of the Christ: sin does not always appear as a raging, roaring tiger (or a lion, to borrow a biblical example), but often tempts us with the beautiful allure of an adulteress. Evil has appeal to it. Yet behind the superficial beauty lies an enemy more powerful and more deadly than we often realize. Just ask Adam and Eve.
#4. Even a beautiful, breathtaking world is fallen and corrupt and needs saving.
It’s hard to tell what parts of The Jungle Book ’s cinematography are real and which are CGI, but either way they’re stunning. As someone who loves the great outdoors, I was breathless on more than one occasion at the magnitude and majesty of the jungle’s terrain. Our Father’s world is truly a grand place.
Yet for all that, the world is still fallen. For all the wonders of nature, there is always danger and death lurking around every corner. The Disney studio who put out movies like Pocahontas, Tarzan, and Brother Bear would have you believe that nature is a perfect, blissful Eden all on its own, were it not for the meddling destruction of mankind. But this Jungle Book, from that same Disney studio, holds no such view. Predators. Stampedes. Avalanches. Weather. Injury. Nature, left to its own devices, is hardly a peaceful utopia. Yes, it is beautiful and captivating, and yet even without man’s interference it is also harsh and cruel, and in need of redemption.
The late Michael Crichton, an outspoken opponent of environmentalism, put it so well: “In short, the romantic view of the natural world as a blissful Eden is only held by people who have no actual experience of nature…Take a trek through the jungles of Borneo, and in short order you will have festering sores on your skin, you’ll have bugs all over your body, biting in your hair, crawling up your nose and into your ears, you’ll have infections and sickness and if you’re not with somebody who knows what they’re doing, you’ll quickly starve to death…It is a harsh, powerful, and unforgiving world, that most urban westerners have never experienced.”
The apostle Paul would agree with that: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:20-22). All creation has been affected by sin, and all creation is waiting for renewal.
#5. Creation’s savior is a man who overcomes the failures of all men before him.
As we’ve already discussed, man is capable of great evil or great good, and it’s implied throughout the movie that the animals have encountered man’s evil in the past. Mowgli, as the hero of the film, faces the same possibility of corruption. He is susceptible to the weaknesses of the men who came before him. Yet he succeeds where others have failed. He resists the temptation to abuse power. He does in the flesh what his forefathers could not do.
It was through a man that sin entered the world. But it would also be through a man that the world would be redeemed. As Aslan said in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, “A force of evil has already entered [the world]; waked and brought hither by this Son of Adam…And as Adam’s race has done the harm, Adam’s race shall help to heal it.”
This ultimate victory is found, of course, in the incarnate Son of God. Jesus Christ became fully man and faced all the same temptations that every man before Him had faced, yet by His active obedience He kept God’s law on our behalf and was victorious where all others had been defeated. He accomplished what Adam, and all Adam’s offspring, could not. He is humanity’s champion and the sovereign Ruler of all creation.
In the end, this Hero throws the roaring jungle cat into the flames, crushes the head of the seductive serpent, restores life to those He loves, and establishes an incorruptible peace across the redeemed realm of creation.
Now that’s a story worth retelling again and again.