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Countries, not races: “The Jungle Book” allows both anti-U.S. and pro-U.S. interpretation

The Jungle Book movie poster

“The Jungle Book”
Dir. Jon Favreau
Starring Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, and others
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
PG, 105 minutes, 2016

Spoiler alert

A wolf father and leader (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito) is thrown to eir death in front of wolf cubs. This is pretty dark stuff.

The live-action “Jungle Book” movie invites political interpretation. Sloth bear Baloo calls the wolves’ creed “propaganda.” Jungle law poetry for the wolves includes, “the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” Jungle law allows animals to hunt each other. “Jungle law” in reality could be nationalism conducted legally or lawlessly. A notion of nationalism for all nations could favor the already-hegemonic United States though oppressed nations could do a lot more under existing norms to resist the U.S.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. At the time of this writing, news outlets have been reporting about Saudi Arabia’s use of the phrase “the law of the jungle” earlier this month.(1) The context is U.S. legislation enabling more lawsuits against other countries’ governments, over terrorism. There is an existing law of the jungle in which the united $tates has advantages, and it – more than other countries – would be able to avoid unfavorable judgments in lawsuits and avoid paying penalties. Amerikans appear to be disagreeing with each other on the legislation for diplomatic and economic reasons.

Humyns have a bad reputation in the jungle in “The Jungle Book.” Their “tricks” threaten to disrupt the ecology and destroy the jungle. The tricks include use of the “red flower” – fire. Black-haired, brown-skinned “man cub” Mowgli comes from a group of humyns who have a lot of “red flower.” It looks menacing. They wear turbans.

The effect of that depends on the viewer. What children in the West see is people who look different, like the people on the TV when the grown-ups are watching news about war and those bad, bad “Islamists” or Indian offshoring; they have fire that scares cute animals. The tiger attacks first, though.

It’s not how ey thought it would happen initially, but Mowgli ends up using fire to kill Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba). Mowgli endangers the jungle in the process. After the tiger is out of the picture, the jungle seems reconciled to the fact that Mowgli’s “man” trick started a fire in the trees despite Mowgli’s intentions.

A hypnotic python tries to eat Mowgli. Primate king King Louie wants to use fire and thinks Mowgli can help. Baloo deceives and uses Mowgli to get honey after saving em from python Kaa.

The jungle is like the world, with many nations that have conflicts or use the same resources. “The Jungle Book” is open to a lot of different interpretations. One is that candidate for predator #1 Shere Khan is the united states. Mowgli is a political outlier the world is tempted to shun but needs or wants to keep. Perhaps it is a movement or country that has a bad image in the world at the moment. There is an unfavorable attitude toward it at least in public. Even after a country stops protecting the pariah, vengeful Amerikans want it hurt and tries to bully others into cooperating. The outlier brings the world to the brink seemingly. For sure there are sacrifices, but this is necessary to get the U.S. out of the way. In the movie, a watchful black panther (voiced by Ben Kingsley) helps Mowgli, suggesting African-Asian unity.

The pitfall of using jungle animals as symbols is that they may make u.$. dominance seem natural. However, elephants are treated with more respect than Shere Khan, who is defeated. “Survival of the fittest” doesn’t mean there can’t be a much larger number of animals that could deal with one predator.

The setting and Indian wolves and humyns in “Jungle Book” suggest an obvious reference to India. India is an oppressed, industrialized country with more than a billion people. Except for Mowgli’s father fending off Shere Khan years ago, adult humyns don’t play any role apart from being a distant threat. A false idea of anti-U.S. struggle is to unite with imperialist country exploiters mostly and relatively few people in the Third World. “Jungle Book” may not be helpful in this context.

The species of the jungle have some conflict with each other, particularly predators and prey. All of the jungle has agreed there is to be a “truce” when water is low and a “Peace Rock” sticks out of the water. The law of the jungle isn’t total lawlessness. Even Shere Khan respects this part of the law of the jungle as do the wolves that have adopted Mowgli. Their future meals have to drink water to grow and reproduce after all. However, Shere Khan intimidates the other animals despite the truce. Their wariness consumes their attention when they could be drinking water instead. In the non-movie world, the U.$. exploits or oppresses the world in various ways that are legal in trade and diplomacy, but the united $tates is still an enemy. It gets away with breaking international law because of spying, gunboat diplomacy, and things it does legally (or extralegally).

Another interpretation is that the humyns are the U.S., threatening the world. In this case, Shere Khan is actually right to worry about Mowgli though Shere Khan is perhaps too urgent and partly motivated by a desire for revenge against Mowgli’s humyn father. Nobody disputes that humyns in general pose a threat. In reality, people facing an invasion, opposed to exploitation, or against u.s. foreign policy, are right to have concerns about certain countries’ foreign influence and use of power. Non-foreigners could be enemies, too, but “Jungle Book” in this interpretation suggests giving foreigners slack they may not deserve. Mowgli’s being one individual, a child, just obscures the matter. It doesn’t matter what they say or how much money or humynitarian assistance they have to give; the world has to assume Amerikans in their midst are spies.

An English audio version of “The Jungle Book” has different English accents for different animal species. The “noble” wolves have only an Amerikan accent if this reviewer remembers correctly. Though everyone speaks English, this may lead to interpretations in which Amerikans despite being high in the food chain are victims who are inclusive of non-whites or some migrants while fending off threats from two directions, such as the U.S. government or bankers and the Third World. Middle-class and other Amerikans already think this. Baloo, a likable character of another species, is voiced by Amerikan actor Bill Murray.

“Jungle Book” has a strong theme of unity regardless of interpretation. In the real world, there are many different reactionary unities of Amerikans. There is also an emerging united front of various countries against the united $nakes. This is in non-war areas of politics as well as war. Globally, most battles to be fought at this time are outside the physical battlefield. ◊

1. “Senate passes bill exposing Saudi Arabia to 9/11 legal claims,” 2016 May 17.
“Saudi FM: We don’t use economic policy for political purposes,” 2016 May 3.

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