When I was a child, some of my favorite movies were from Disney and the magical world that only Disney could create. There was this indescribable enchanting allure of the pauper street-rat; who won the heart of the princess with the aid of a flying carpet, a genie, and his companion Abu. Then there was the love born between a woman and man turned beast. The compassion and forgiveness that Belle’s love taught the Beast, freed him from his tormented soul with the assistance of talking dishware and furniture. Such stories easily captured the imagination of a young boy.
But, my third favorite Disney tale was a much simpler story. It was a story driven not by love between man and woman, but by man’s love of nature and unwillingness to leave the jungle. Disney’s Mowgli (1967) enraptured my soul as I saw a boy lounging in the jungle with his friends Bagheera and Baloo. Yet, fate would not allow Mowgli to quietly dwell in the Jungle as a fabled archrival, Shere Khan, returned to the jungle. Shere Khan’s return caused Bagheera to insist Mowgli rejoin the man-pack. This results in a series of adventures where Mowgli survives the hypnotic coils of Kaa, the swinging apes of King Louie, and finally a climaxed battle with the dreaded Shere Khan.
This child’s story from 1967 mesmerized me and stole my imagination as I ran in the woods behind my home creating my own adventures in the jungle. Then, in 2016, Disney recreated the fabled stories of Mowgli in a new production of The Jungle Book. The new version was a much darker telling of Mowgli’s adventures in the jungle. Shere Khan is shown as the malicious killer of man who will stop at nothing to murder the man-cub who escaped him so many years ago. In this telling, we witness Mowgli’s transition from a boy running from danger into a man, the master of the jungle who triumphs over Shere Khan with his cunning and power of the red flower.
After I had watched Disney’s latest version of the Jungle Book I began to note the differences between the two stories. There was also a poem, the Law of the Jungle, I heard in the opening credits that contained segments I had seen around NC State’s campus,
“The strength of the wolf is the pack,
And the strength of the pack is the wolf.”
Clearly, I needed to visit the campus library and read the original Jungle Book story. When I first picked up the book, I was surprised. I had expected a short children’s novel consisting of Mowgli’s adventures throughout the jungle, but I actually discovered that the Jungle Book was a collection of short stories written by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). The version I read was published in 2005 and interpreted by Alev Lytle Croutier and contained both The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book.
The most striking differences between Kipling’s original Jungle Books and Disney’s rendition of the Jungle Book was Mowgli’s relationship with the python Kaa. Disney portrays Kaa as a hypnotic foe who attempts to eat Mowgli, but, in fact, Kaa is sought out by Bagheera and Baloo to rescue Mowgli from the Monkey-People (read Kaa’s Hunting for the full plot). After his rescuing, Mowgli and Kaa become life-long friends; Mowgli even reaches out to Kaa requesting his great wisdom to help the Free People (the Wolfpack who adopted Mowgli) defeat the invading dholes (read Red Dog for the full story).
There is one resonating theme between Kipling’s version and Disney’s telling of The Jungle Book. In all three versions, as Mowgli’s adventures conclude and he becomes a man there is a force that drives Mowgli from the jungle. Disney portrays Mowgli being driven by a sense of wonder to the man village, a growing sense of curiosity for those creatures who are like him, but different. And, in true Disney fashion, a maiden of the village is used to help lure Mowgli from the jungle.
However, Kipling shows Mowgli leaving for a different reason. After a lifetime of happiness in the Jungle, Mowgli can no longer find pleasure and contentment simply by being in the jungle. His heart begins to yearn for something more that Mowgli cannot describe, but Kipling names the force through the voice of Akela. Who, as he lay on his death bed after battling the dhole, prophesizes, “Mowgli will drive Mowgli. Go back to thy people. Go to man.” This line reminded me of a lesson I learned at Aquinas in a Theology class. I was reminded of the Great Chain of Being. Simply, that man cannot exist in the jungle surrounded by beast pursuing the simplicities of life; man is called to a higher purpose and he must set aside his delusions to answer this higher call. In Mowgli’s case, this meant leaving the jungle behind to rejoin the man-pack.