Disney’s 1967 version of The Jungle Book is a movie about a young boy in peril that never makes its audience feel a palpable sense of danger. When we think about Mowgli’s animated journey to the man-village as presented in that film, we tend to remember the song “Bare Necessities” or the way Kaa’s snake eyes turn into a hypnotic series of endless, swirly cartoon circles. The memories of watching it, for most of us, are not tinged with fear. That’s because Walt Disney washed away the darker themes that were initially present in the studio’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s stories in order to keep the movie as light and family-friendly as possible.
So perhaps the most striking element of Disney’s new take on The Jungle Book, aside from its jaw-droppingly authentic-looking CGI, is how much of the darkness director Jon Favreau has allowed back into the narrative. While a lot of the buoyancy of the original movie is present — a couple of the songs make it in, including a bit of “Bare Necessities” — it’s as if Favreau thought about how to tell this man-cub story and decided: “Forget about your worry and your strife? No, man.” Despite all its computer-generated effects, this Jungle Book feels more real and more frightening than its best-known predecessor (for the purposes of this story, we’ll just ignore 1994’s The Jungle Book), and that’s actually its greatest asset. It’s also the reason why some parents may be reluctant to take their kids to see it and, at least in the case of older children, exactly why they should.
Much of what happened to the animated man-cub back in 1967 also happens, in the most basic terms, to the man-cub played by Neel Sethi in 2016. In both movies, Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves since infancy, must travel to a village populated by humans in order to avoid being killed by the vengeful tiger Shere Khan. In both movies, he also encounters a seductive snake, a super-chill bear, and an ape who wants Mowgli to help him gain access to the most powerful of all human creations: fire. But where the earlier film plays most of these experiences for laughs or gentle excitement, the new Jungle Book puts Mowgli in positions that feel much more precarious.
In a departure from the ‘67 Jungle Book — warning: light spoilers ahead — Baloo (Bill Murray) initially uses Mowgli as nothing more than a honey-gathering tool, bee stings be damned; only later does the bear decide to be the boy’s friend for more pure reasons. As before, King Louie wants to use Mowgli, too. But in the new movie, there’s something more threatening about his intentions, in part because Louie is now a massive Gigantopithecus with the voice of Christopher Walken instead of an orangutan who sings and swings like Louis Prima. As for Kaa (voiced here by Scarlett Johansson), there’s definitely a moment when it seems like Mowgli might really get squeezed to death by that seductive python, to a degree that didn’t seem very likely in the first movie, when Kaa, voiced by Sterling Holloway, literally sounded like Winnie the Pooh.
But the most terrifying presence in the new Jungle Book is undoubtedly Shere Khan. The tiger is intimidating in the first Jungle Book; his attack on Baloo is the most upsetting thing in that movie, even if the idea that the bear has been killed only sits in the air for a nanosecond. But in the new Jungle Book, Shere Khan is a flat-out monster, one with disfiguring burn scars who announces his intentions to murder while Mowgli cowers behind his adoptive mother, the wolf Raksha. Here, the tiger, whom Idris Elba infuses with the same authority and intimidation he brought to the Commandant in Beasts of No Nation, says he’s going to kill and actually does it, for real, not in a fake, Disney way where the “victim” miraculously blinks open his eyes moments later.
So why subject our kids to all this? Because what’s great about this Jungle Book is that we repeatedly see Mowgli rise to the occasion and overcome obstacles — and his fears — on his own. In the animated Jungle Book, Bagheera or Baloo usually intervene in a way that ultimately prevent the boy from getting hurt. While both the panther and the bear act as his guides in the new film, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks have made an effort to show that Mowgli has developed his own set of survival skills during his years in the jungle. When he manages to flee from King Louie and, more importantly, when he confronts Shere Khan, he’s essentially doing it all on his own. He faces the things that scare him and — again, spoiler alert — he vanquishes them. As a parent, that’s precisely what we want our children to do. Well, hopefully not while confronting ferocious tigers, but certainly in more everyday circumstances that cause anxiety. Because the jungle in this Book feels so real, Mowgli’s ability to stand up for himself feels like a much more real, teachable moment. That’s why, even though it contains a few scary moments, I think this is a movie that parents should take their elementary school-aged children to see.
As a parent myself, I know how much agony goes into decisions about which movies are “too much” for our kids and which are not. While there are some moms and dads who drag their kids into theaters where they clearly have no business being — for the rest of my life, I will wonder what long-term trauma was inflicted on the five-year-old who sat in front of me during Saving Private Ryan — most of us are cautious about the imagery we allow to appear in front of our impressionable babies’ eyes. Our biggest concern, usually, is that they’ll see something that scares them. As parents, we’re their protectors so it’s a basic instinct to want to shield them from harm, even if said harm is pure pretend. (To be fair, we also want to shield ourselves from staying up all night with a child who’s having nightmares.)
For pre-schoolers and even some young elementary schoolers — say, kindergarteners and first graders — The Jungle Book genuinely may be too scary. Even though the film is rated PG, there’s a reason why all the promotions for it on the Disney Channel consistently warn that it may be too intense for younger viewers. But for kids who are older than that, there’s something valuable, even empowering to take away from watching Mowgli confront the things that frighten him. Experiencing fear in the safe realm of fiction is how we first learn to deal with it in real life. If we shield our kids from that forever, we’re also depriving them of the opportunity to realize that it’s something they have the power to control and diffuse.
Within the story of The Jungle Book, it’s Raksha, Mowgli’s wolf-mother, who worries most profoundly about him heading off to the man-village. Like any parent, she wants to shield her boy from things that may irreparably injure him. What she eventually realizes also provides a teachable moment for us over-worrying parents, too: even a kid who was raised by wolves is going to be okay in that dark, dangerous world out there.