Tuesday, June 07, 2016
The Jungle Book: theologies of creation and redemption
Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for June 2016.
The Jungle Book
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor
The Jungle Book is an unexpected surprise. What shaped as a well-worn tale for children is brought to stunning life by Disney’s dollars, digital animation and director, Jon Favreau.
There are two stars that make The Jungle Book shine. The first is technology. Bringing the stories from The Jungle Book to animated cinematic life is nothing new. It has been tried before, first, by Zoltan Korda in 1942, second in the Soviet Union in 1967 (celebrated with an accompanying postage stamp) and third as Japanese anime in 1989. What allows this latest visual telling to shine is technology. Shot entirely in a warehouse in Los Angeles, the film uses the latest in motion-capture filmmaking. The result is a human actor sustaining believable conversations with realistic-looking wolves, bears, panthers, orangutans and tigers. It is an act of human creativity simply wonderful to behold.
The second is Neel Sethi as Mowgli, the boy raised by jungle wolves. Sethi is the only visible human actor in the film. It is an extraordinary feat for a child of twelve years, let alone one that has never acted before, to sustain for 106 minutes, such an engrossing mix of courage and play.
The Jungle Book can be appreciated as a moral tale. Themes like stick together and never give up have been used by the Cub Scouts to encourage and mentor young people.
The Jungle Book can be read as political commentary. Shere Khan rules by terror, using random acts of violence to impose a fear-based fundamentalism: man-cub becomes a man, and man is forbidden.
The Jungle Book can be engaged as theology. The most overt reference comes through the peace rock. Shere Khan’s fundamentalism lives in tension with a deeper law of the jungle. When drought occurs and waters dry, a giant river rock is revealed. It is the peace rock. When that rock appears, all animals can visit the waterhole to drink in peace. It provides a way to understand the Christian Gospel. When the time of Messiah comes, a peace rock is revealed. When the three crosses of Golgotha appear, all of creation, animals and humans, can drink in peace from the waters of life.
A more disturbing theme involves theologies of creation. The Jungle Book reads like a modern day Psalm 8, chilling devoid of grace. Psalm 8 is written in two stanzas. One celebrates creation. Another celebrates human creativity. The Jungle Book has a similar beginning, celebrating creation as benign and beautiful. Swiftly, fear is introduced, the peace rock in tension with Shere Khan’s reign of terror.
The chill deepens when humans creativity is introduced. Humans have the creative, technological skills to make “the red flower” of fire. Such acts provide warmth yet wreak destruction. The entire plot is driven by this human use, and misuse, of one the four elements of creation. It is fire that enables The Jungle Book’s final enacting of justice. It is a chilling theology of creation, a portrayal of human creativity shorn of grace and compassion.
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