Rudyard Kipling’s timeless story of the boy raised by wolves in the jungle returns to the big screen once again, courtesy of Disney Studios. If you remember the animated 1967 version, I just bet you’re humming the tune for “Bare Necessities” in your head right this minute. This live-action version of the story features only one live person, the man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi), although the digital wizardry performed by the filmmakers just might have us believing that the animals are real, too.
Orphaned when Bengal tiger, Shere Kahn (Idris Elba), killed his father, Mowgli is found by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), the black panther, who places the man-cub in the care of the wolf couple Raksha and Akela (Lupito Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito). There he learns the love of a family and the law of the jungle. “The strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack,” the wolves and Mowgli recite, although both the wolves and Bagheera’s patience is constantly tried by Mowgli’s ever moving motor mouth.
In a year when the dry season is worse than usual, the Peace Rock becomes exposed. Normally covered by water, the Peace Rock’s appearance hails the “water truce,” a time when all the animals can come to the rock to find water to drink, both predator and prey alike, without fear for their lives. Mowgli’s first appearance at the water truce causes some raised eyebrows among the other animals, especially when he starts using his tricks (as Bagheera calls them). You see, Mowgli’s a budding engineer, building little contraptions to help him better obtain water. The peace among the animals at the Peace Rock suddenly turns dark when Shere Kahn shows up and declares that the man-cub must be killed.
Rather than risk the safety of the pack, Mowgli decides to leave with Bagheera and go to the man village. Separated from Bagheera when Shere Kahn attacks, Mowgli encounters all sorts of unknown dangers. He meets and almost succumbs to the tales of the huge python, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), as she hypnotically tells him the story of his father. The lazy bear, Baloo (Bill Murray), cons Mowgli into using his tricks to get honey but Baloo and Mowgli end up friends.
The actors who lend their voices to these time-honored characters do not disappoint. Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa is smooth and seductive. Christopher Walken as King Louie is as creepy as ever. Idris Elba’s Shere Kahn embodies the majesty and menace of the film’s villain. Neel Sethi, the only on-screen human, captures Mowgli’s innocence but also his sense of love and responsibility toward the wolves and Bagheera.
The Jungle Book provides many values to talk about with the kids. Peace takes first place. The “water truce,” although unrealistic, provides an ideal of how the world could be if we, as human beings, were able to get along with each other. Responsibility, loyalty, and friendship also make an appearance.
I believe one of the most important values in the film, especially for kids, is that of togetherness, “being with.” Mowgli has good reason for leaving the wolf pack but while he’s alone, he encounters dangers that almost do him in. He learns that he is at his best when he is with the pack, both the wolves and the other animals. We, too, are strongest when we are with our pack, our families, our friends, and even our community of faith. We’re stronger together.