Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham
Last month saw the release of Disney’s live action re-make of the well-loved classic, The Jungle Book. Directed by Jon Favreau, the much-anticipated film has enjoyed tremendous early success in both the UK and America, topping the box office charts and breaking ticket-sales records. This modern twist on Rudyard Kipling’s iconic tale, is not only thoroughly entertaining, but also demonstrates some of the main themes explored by animal geographers, as well as those that Bear (2011) (yes, his name really is that apt!) has identified as being under-developed within the discipline.
The most prominent theme that runs throughout the film is the oft-debated, long-standing human-animal binary, placing nature in opposition to culture. Physically, the humans and animals are separated, the human village being distinct from the rest of the jungle. Each have their own place, geographically defined, keeping them separate rather than in constant competition for survival. The cognitive difference between humans and animals is much more heavily emphasised throughout the film. Man’s capacity for rational thought is widely cited as the main distinguishing feature between humans and animals. Let’s start with “man’s red flower”, the phrase used by the animals to describe ‘fire’. The ‘red flower’ stands for man’s superior intelligence and more civilised state; only humans know the secret of how to make it, and its devastating effects are feared by the animals, reinforcing human control over the jungle. Even King Louie, King of the Apes and “jungle V.I.P.”, is aware of the power this ability gives man. As he sings “I wanna be like you”, we are reminded, yet again, of the abyss that remains between man and beast, not only because he “desires man’s red fire”, but also because he wants to “walk like” and “talk like” humans too.
Mowgli’s character also serves to remind us of human-animal difference. His presence in the jungle, a boy living with the wolf pack, turns heads amongst the animals; he is, as geographers would put it, ‘out of place’. Even the wolves who raised Mowgli, and his trusty panther friend Bagheera, scorn some of his innately human ways of problem-solving, which they call ‘tricks’. Mowgli’s presence where he does not ‘belong’ is the reason that he becomes hunted by Shere Khan, and driven out of the jungle by the tiger. On his journey to the man village, Mowgli meets arguably the most loved animal in this story, Baloo the bear, who, after rescuing him from death by python (Kaa, to be precise), soon develops a close bond with him. Mowgli’s distinctly ‘human’ traits are further emphasised, Baloo exploiting his ‘tricks’ in order to help him harvest honey using a complex system of pulleys that only a man could make.
After learning that Shere Khan was responsible for his father’s death, and that the tiger has also killed Akela, the leader of the wolf pack, taking charge of the jungle, Mowgli returns to confront Shere Kahn. Taking a burning branch with him from the man village, Mowgli pursues Shere Khan in order to save his wolf family and the rest of the jungle animals from his tyrannous reign. However, his act only further reinforces man’s superiority, as he inadvertently sets fire to the jungle, the fear in the animals’ eyes being a very poignant reminder that Mowgli is, despite his upbringing, a human. Even though, by slaying Shere Khan he helps the other animals, the film still emphasises that man – in this case, Mowgli – and animals are habitually in conflict, a conflict that is often resolved through hunting, slaughter, and the expression of human superiority.
Whilst Mowgli’s character creates a clear division between humans and animals, he also serves to blur the distinction, something which animal geographers argue is becoming more and more common. Being raised by wolves, Mowgli grows up to be one of the pack. He develops wolf-like behavioural traits and, as animal geographers would call it, undergoes a process of ‘becoming wolf’ through close cohabitation. This Deleuzian notion of ‘becoming’ is one which animal geographers have explored in order to explain close human-animal relationships that transcend the boundaries of ‘man’ and ‘beast’. Even the language used by the animals to describe Mowgli – ‘man cub’ – shows the ambiguous nature of his character, not quite man, but not quite wolf. Through living with the animals Mowgli learns to be sensitive to their needs, and develops a close understanding that animal geographers, such as Bear (2011), argue is so difficult to achieve.
Finally, The Jungle Book, also provides an insight into, what animal geographers argue, is an under-developed theme in animal geography, the individuality of animals. Bear (2011) stresses that most animal geography studies focus on groups of animals or whole species, rather than the individual. In his study of Angelica the octopus and her affective relationships with visitors to her aquarium, he poses that more can be learnt about human-animal relationships by studying individual animals, studies of groups of animals homogenising and concealing the individual. In The Jungle Book, whilst we still have groups of animals – such as the pack of wolves and the almost mythical herd of elephants – there are many characters who tell their own individual stories. Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther, Shere Khan the tiger, and King Louie the gigantopithecus, each express their individuality and have different relationships with Mowgli and the other animals. This, in turn, affects the audience’s response to them; Baloo appears comical yet kind, Bagheera is brave and loyal, Shere Khan is cruel yet vulnerable, and King Louie is powerful and greedy. Interpret them as you will, but, whilst fictional and highly anthropomorphised, it is through these individual stories that the audience form an understanding of the human-animal relationships at play in the film.
Both as a thrilling piece of cinema, and as a demonstration of animal geography’s wider relevance, The Jungle Book is well-worth a watch!
Bear, C. (2011) “Being Angelica? Exploring individual animal geographies”, Area, 43(3):297-304.
The Jungle Book 2016 IMDB listing http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3040964/