No one who has attended a showing of Disney’s recent live-action version of The Jungle Book has done so looking for profound philosophical insight. Yet, such insight emerges from the family-friendly film. Whether intentional or not, the story of the man-cub Mowgli and his adventures among jungle creatures affirms the values of liberty and capitalism.
We get our first glimpse of the theme early on when a drought triggers a truce between predators and prey. As animals gather to drink at a dwindling pond, the boy Mowgli stands out for his unconventional use of tools to draw water. His mentor, the black panther Bagheera, rebukes the boy for his “tricks” and urges him to behave like the wolves who have raised him.
As the film progresses, Mowgli turns repeatedly to these “tricks” as a means to achieve his ends. Eventually, he finds himself in the company of the bear Baloo, who encourages the boy to embrace his nature and regards his tool-making abilities as gifts. Further, Baloo employs the boy in a joint enterprise to produce a supply of honey for the winter.
Mowgli uses his mind to craft solutions to numerous problems, helping himself and others in the process. His antagonists are not merely jungle carnivores, but those creatures whom he regards as friends. Echoing Bagheera, Mowgli’s wolf guardians live for their pack and discourage the boy’s individualism.
The tyrannical tiger Shere Khan opposes Mowgli’s very existence, because of his nature as a human being. It is what Mowgli is, and what he can do, that drives Khan to stalk him. The tiger recognizes that Mowgli’s innate human capacity to produce proves more dangerous than the fiercest set of claws.
In the end, The Jungle Book is about man’s nature as a rational being, and his taming of the wild to facilitate his survival and enhance his quality of life. It’s a refreshing narrative considering what typically comes out of Hollywood these days.
It’s worth noting that the film’s director, Jon Favreau, previously directed Iron Man. That too was a film which celebrated rationality and liberty, with an unabashed capitalist as its protagonist. Perhaps it’s a coincidence. We certainly wouldn’t want to out Favreau if he’s able to sneak these ideas past his peers.