My entire family went to see The Jungle Book this past weekend. From my 3 ½-year old son, to my mother-in-law, we all thoroughly enjoyed it. Disney is to be commended for making an engaging, creative, and faithful “live” version of this classic story.
Like all fictional movies, The Jungle Book offers a story, which has worldview implications. Two questions lie at the heart of the movie: What does it mean to be human? And secondarily: How does man relate to nature? Specifically, these questions are explored through the life of Mowgli—a young boy whom wolves raise in the jungle.
At the opening scene, the wise panther Bagheera is training Mowgli to chase like a wolf. Ignoring Bagheera’s advice to stay low like the rest of the wolves, Mowgli goes high into the trees, steps on a brittle branch, and falls to the ground in failure. Although he desperately wants to be like the other wolves, Mowgli senses that he is different and may never truly fit in.
After the fearsome tiger Shere Kahn threatens the entire wolf pack on Mowgli’s behalf, Mowgli decides that its best he leaves. His friend Bagheera, who first brought him to the wolf pack to be raised, convinces Mowgli that he needs to leave his beloved jungle and join human civilization. At this point in the movie, the message is clear—Mowgli does not “fit” in the jungle and needs to seek out others who are like him.
After a series of life threatening adventures with Shere Kahn, the snake Kaa, the baboon King Louie, and the bear Baloo (the lovable character who gave Mowgli second thoughts about leaving the jungle), Mowgli is finally persuaded by Bagheera and Baloo to leave the jungle for good. But when Mowgli hears about the death of Akela, the former head of the wolf pack who raised him, he seeks revenge against Shere Kahn.
Knowing that Shere Kahn fears fire (called the “red flower), Mowgli runs into the human encampment hoping to find some for a weapon. This is where we get our first up-close view of humanity. And the message is clear: human civilization is wild, dangerous, and destructive. The juxtaposition with the jungle is clear: while the jungle has order, natural law, and cultivates respect for other kinds, human civilization is wild and unpredictable. In fact, ironically, human civilization is presented as the real jungle and the actual jungle is viewed as the most civilized.
Mowgli grabs a torch and heads out to defeat Shere Kahn. But unbeknownst to him, while he is running through the jungle, sparks fall behind and start a massive forest fire in his wake. After using his ingenuity to defeat Shere Kahn, the elephants (who Mowgli had been taught previously to bow down to), reroute the river to extinguish the forest fire. Again, the message seems clear: humans cause destruction and only animals can bring safety and order.
After defeating Shere Kahn, Mowgli truly comes to grip with his unique human nature. He no longer tries to be a wolf, but realizes that his intelligence and ingenuity set him apart from the rest of nature. In other words, Mowgli learns to be true to his nature rather than trying to imitate others. While The Jungle Book certainly doesn’t imply that humans are made in the image of God, it does show that humans are distinct from nature in terms of reasoning and intellect. Humans really are different from the rest of the animal kingdom.
But what is interesting is that Mowgli finds his true home in the jungle. Rather than needing other human beings, Mowgli is truly fulfilled in nature alone. While this works in the movie—since the animals have personalities, can build relationships, and even sing songs—this doesn’t work in real life. Human beings need each other to find genuine fulfillment.
In fact, this is one of the opening messages in the Bible. In Genesis 2, God creates Adam and puts him in the Garden along with the other animals. Although he has perfect health, safety, a beautiful environment, a relationship with the animals, and could walk with God, something was lacking. In fact, God specifically said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable helper for him” (Gen 2:18). In order to populate the earth, and also for Adam to be fully human, God needed to create another human being—Eve—that he could uniquely relate to as an equal. Here is one of the key messages from Genesis 2: While it is important for people to be in proper relationship with God and nature, humans also need each other.
Jesus made a similar point when he was asked the greatest commandment in the law (Mark 12). In response to his interlocutors, Jesus essentially said that we are to love God and love other people. The heart of the Christian faith is found in loving relationships with God and other people. Thus, we are only truly fulfilled as human beings if we properly relate to God and other people. If these relationships are lacking, or broken, then we cannot fully live the way God has designed us to be.
I raise these points not in criticism of The Jungle Book. As I said in the introduction, I think it’s a fantastic movie, and I encourage you to go see it. It is filled with many important insights about sacrifice, loyalty, and courage. But consider doing two things when you see it. First, use it as an opportunity to talk to other Christians about the worldview behind the movie. Movies are a wonderful opportunity to help young people, in particular, think Christianly about life.
Second, look for opportunities to talk with non-believers. Notice that I used the word talk, not lecture. Movies provide a natural way to learn from other people, better understand their worldviews, and if they are open, to share our own.
Here are some questions that may help get a conversation started about the worldview behind The Jungle Book:
- What did you like about The Jungle Book? Was there anything you didn’t like?
- What do you think was the key theme of The Jungle Book?
- What does it really means to be human? What separates us, if anything, from nature? What do you think best explains those differences?
- Do you think, as the movie suggests, that there is more order in the jungle than in human civilization? Why or why not?
- Do you think human beings can truly find fulfillment in the jungle apart from human relationships?
- Genesis 2 suggests that humans are designed for relationship with God, human beings, and nature. What do you think?
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.