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The Jungle Book and the Theology of the Body


Disney Pictures

Kathleen Torrey - published on 05/07/16

In the new version of the film, Mowgli makes a modern mistake: he fails to realize that being human requires participation in a human community

The raucous animal adventure of Disney’s 1967 The Jungle Book enthralled me when I saw it for the first time at four years old. I loooved animals. Perhaps because I was naturally shy, animals seemed to me much superior to people in many ways, and endlessly fascinating.

Like other kids, I projected onto Mowgli and envied his friendship with Baloo, in particular.

The movie’s end, it follows, was a bitter gall. That Mowgli would leave his animal pals — after they saved his life and ousted Mowgli’s enemy, Shere Khan, mind you — for a prepubescent girl balancing a pot and batting her eyelashes seemed a betrayal. I wept openly and wailed at my mother, “How could you let me watch that? Did you knooow?” Mowgli, I believed, was privileged to live outside the injuries and duties of human community, and he abandoned it so easily.

It wasn’t until I was 20 and reading John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” that I saw how beautiful Mowgli’s arc is. In a kid-sized bite, it traces original man’s journey from original solitude and innocence, king among beasts, into relationship with his complementary partner and equal: woman.

Disney has endured a barrage of criticism in recent years regarding their former fixation on the girl meets boy — boy rescues girl — girl and boy get married story. Perhaps this led to their decision to write the girl with the pot out of the ending in their newest take on Kipling’s classic, but it was a mistake that lessened the whole story.

The 1967 animation is a classic comedy; the journey ended when the lovers met. As a girl, I thought the proper lovers were the friends Baloo and Mowgli. In the moments following the battle with Shere Khan, Mowgli and Bagheera believe Baloo to be dead. To comfort the guilt-ridden boy, Bagheera quotes John 15:13: “Greater love hath no one than he who lays down his life for his friend.”

In Baloo, Mowgli had a true friend. The anthropomorphised bear loved the kid purely. Yet only wise Bagheera knows that despite their reciprocal love, Mowgli does not belong in their crew. The issue is not of affection but of nature. Mowgli cannot be a bear anymore than he can be a wolf or a monkey, and that fact carves the shape of his actions.

While employing “the red flower,” fire, in battle does not reveal to Mowgli his nature, nor do any of the animals. The little girl does. Mowgli is struck by her similarity to him and follows her, transfixed, without saying a proper good-bye to his friends. Baloo’s cries of resistance still break my heart when I see it. Yet the ending resonates. Every man must leave the jungle for his vocation — if not in marriage, then in human community full of duty, injury and love. When a vocation is recognized, there should be no delay, no delay in responding to a calling.

Mowgli’s last act is constructive rather than destructive. He retrieves the little girl’s pot. You bet she dropped it on purpose, giving him the opportunity to fill it back up and place it on his own head. Fire heats water to cleansing; water foils fire; they need each other.

Fifty years later, forget the girl. Mowgli has better things to do. While the inclusion of Mowgli’s resourcefulness is a welcome nod to Kipling’s full idea of Mowgli, and it makes Mowgli more engaging than the whiny boy from 1967, the character enhancement ends in sterility. This Mowgli is certainly busy and creative — in his actions he emerges as unifier of species, collapser of differences against the common enemy, Shere Khan.

And so, Mowgli has come of age. He boasts to the wolves that he beats them in a race because of his humanity but never seems to internalize that being a man requires more than mastery of environment. It requires participation in a human community, and more often than not, pairing with a woman in marriage.

In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis notes that our extreme individualism is detrimental to marriages, families, and therefore communal life. We see this extremity in the revised The Jungle Book ending. Mowgli stretches out on a tree branch between his friends Bagheera and Baloo, above the Seeonee pack. In our “create yourself” culture, he has no obligation to join the man village. He has proven himself to be literally above such duties.

This is the ending that would have fulfilled the wish of my escapist four-year-old self, but I felt how empty it was in that dark theatre. With all the talk about the law of the jungle in the new film, the law of nature is burned right along with Shere Khan. The message to our boys is play or build to your heart’s contents, and let all the daughters fetching water wait for a long, long time.

If you’re in a Jungle Book mood, as I am, you’re better off cozying up with the kids in front of the 1967 animation, or trying the novel activity of reading Kipling’s original out loud.

Kathleen Torreylives in Virginia with her husband. An expectant first-time mother, she writes on Catholicism, myth, suffering and education. She is also penning a fairy-tale novel and poetry book.

CatholicismMoviesPope John Paul II
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