The Jungle Book

I finally watched the latest movie version of The Jungle Book last night. I had resisted watching it after a friend cautioned me, “it’s much darker than the original.” I loved the original and I still do and I didn’t want that memory in my mind replaced with a darker version.

I would be hard-pressed to find a more joyful sing-along song than the animated King Louie’s, ‘I Wanna Be Like You-hoo-hoo!’ [Well I’m the king of the swingers, ohhh, the jungle VIP! I reached the top and had to stop and that’s what’s been bothering me!”]

Whether you’ve seen it or not, it’s worth four minutes of your life to enjoy this song here.

And yet, I must say, this new version was exceptional – AND – far darker than the version I know that includes Baloo the bearing wiggling his butt in a grass skirt and a non-threatening python hypnotizing Mowgli with kaleidscoping eyes.

I liked the new version because of its depth. It told the truth about how we behave in community, the things that compel us to action, and the real reasons one person might be…both loved and sent away by their own people. There were some strong theological themes in it as well, although I confess that I tend to see theology everywhere. And then there was Christopher Walken’s stellar voiceover on King Louie and everyone’s favorite brother (or Uncle, or Son), Bill Murray, giving voice to Baloo the Bear.

Still, I wondered today if this latest version was intentionally darker because of the times in which we are living. As it turns out, this version is more true to the Jungle BOOK, by Rudyard Kipling upon which both films are based. It is a book that I had read so long ago my recollection of it had moved on to another memory bank far from my own.

The first Disney version of The Jungle Book was released in 1967. And it is light and fun, bright and upbeat. Which made me wonder, since art often reflects life: Was Disney trying to gloss over the real cultural turmoil happening in the 60s when it created the rollicking feel-good version of this tale based on a book that is a mix of disturbing and redemptive images. I don’t know, but I do know that Disney is not known for sidestepping the more troubling aspects of characters in any of their other films. Think Bambi. Think Lion King. Think Snow White or Frozen or the cry from their 1991 classic that applies in far too many real-life situations across the ages: “Kill the Beast!”

I do have mixed feelings about the Disney enterprise as a whole. Yet despite my justice-oriented reasons for my inner conflict, I confess many of these films have a solid place in my heart, in part, because my children grew up with them. We sang the Disney songs then and we can still sing them now. Their lyrics were funny and flawlessly rhymed. Their melodies easy to sing and inspired. The voices that sang them from celebrities we held dear. Still today, I never order dessert in a Middle Eastern restaurant without hearing Robin Williams sing, “How ‘bout a little bit of baklavaaaa?”

Disney songs are a language of our time and in these animated films, they redeemed whatever horrific plot twist was unfolding including children being orphaned and mental illness manifesting in benign ways that nonetheless terrified the other characters.

Last night, I was disappointed when I realized that most of the music from the version I loved was left out of this latest adaptation. And yet, there were lines that made me laugh and moments of bravery that made me pump my fist in the air with a victory shout for the imaginary characters in the fabricated jungle in the midst of a not-real-at-all threat.

And that made me realize that my love for the Disney movies amounts to far more than the music I remember. My love for them is in their ability to act as a metaphor to the realities of life in ways we can process and consider without being paralyzed with fear. My love for them is about their ability to transport my mind out of deep struggles of theology and philosophy and into the whimsical world of talking bears and dancing monkeys. My love for them is about witnessing a story that is memorable and joyful and yes even dark, but whose characters are decidedly good or bad.

And while that last part, having characters that are wholly good or bad, is the point at which the Disney metaphor for life seems to end, it is also the point at which catching our breath in this life can sometimes begin.

Last night, I watched a mudslide happen early in the film, and I felt fear as if it would come right out of my big flat screen and onto my couch. I even got up and paced and said angrily aloud, “that’s NOT part of this story!” because I didn’t want to let that image into my imagination. I was seeking escape from scary visions.

I’m glad I finally saw the 2016 version. Because in the end, as I fell asleep, it wasn’t the mudslide I envisioned. It was Baloo the Bear, sounding a lot like Bill Murray, responding to Bagheera, sounding a lot like Ben Kingsley, observe that Mowgli need not help Baloo prepare to hibernate because “Bears don’t hibernate in the jungle.” And as I drifted off to a bear-worthy sleep, in my mind again, I heard Baloo confess, “It’s not really full hibernation… but I do nap a lot.”