Hold the Groans: ‘The Jungle Book’ Hits the Right Notes of Nostalgia

It’s hard not to see the cinematic nostalgia machine as a way of trapping us all in a loop of regurgitated narratives that pique interest — and earn money — through their lazy appeals to the familiar. The same might be true of Disney’s original intentions in remaking their 1967 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book as a live-action film with a mega-star cast of digitally enhanced actors (Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, Bill Murray, Giancarlo Esposito, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken, and the late Garry Shandling) embodying beasts. (It doesn’t help that a sequel to this remake is already on its way.) But through one running theme, The Jungle Book happens to seize a rare opportunity to make nostalgia potent — in a way that could make the film relevant, and emotionally very resonant, to adult audiences.

The Jon Favreau-directed, Justin Marks-penned Jungle Book sees an orphan boy, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) — whose father was killed by the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) — taken in by a pack of wolves who become his loving adoptive parents. Raksha, played by Nyong’o, fully assumes the maternal role. The premise is similar to that of the original animated film, though the stakes are higher: Shere Khan wants the imposition of mankind on the jungle obliterated (and eaten), and threatens the whole wolf pack, unless they give over Mowgli to his politicized, gastronomic whims. In the first seven minutes of the film, Raksha has to send the boy back to the human world in order to protect him. There’s an inherent tear-jerk factor to stories where children are separated from their parents, but when that pain is transposed onto a particularly emotive wolf with the voice of a beloved actress, oh boy.

The film goes on to explore various forms of guardianship along Mowgli’s journey through the jungle. Because Mowgli actually, in many ways, seems adopted by the whole jungle, we end up getting something of a stampede of well-represented paternal archetypes: first, briefly, there’s Akela (Esposito), whose makes a huge sacrifice to defend Mowgli; then there’s Bagheera (Kingsley), the panther who initially rescued Mowgli, a stern guardian who wants the best for the child within the limited social rules he understands. Balloo (Bill Murray) is the more emotionally attached parent whose carefree nature could be detrimental.

If nostalgia has merit as an artistic device, it’s in an ability to not merely make you remember, but to rehabilitate the sensations of that memory towards a greater comprehension of one’s present. One of the best themes to explore through the emotional template of nostalgia is thus the often-cyclical nature of childhood and parenthood, which The Jungle Book particularly emphasizes.

As a 27-year-old adult who tends to be skeptical of nostalgia, I was struck by how thoroughly the film’s intentionally nostalgic score, familiar characters, and two repeated songs transported me from the current moment to childhood: a time when I saw parental presence as a given, and thrived on but never understood the complexities of those relationships. Watching the film, the knowing autonomy of adulthood was juxtaposed with a vivid recollection of the lovely, thoughtless dependency of childhood. But I doubt I was the intended audience for this movie; it’s obviously a film for parents to see with their children.

As such, an adult watching The Jungle Book with their child might be struck by their memory of having a similar experience when they watched the original. Such is the nature of any remake, but one so fundamentally about parental love and sacrifice creates a bridge between parents and the potential people their own children will become – and all of the love and heartache invested in that potential. Oddly, this is a case where brand recognition (through the recurring, familiarly Disney© songs) is more than just a sign of how certain corporate-artistic enterprises and the stories they tell have shaped us.

Bill Murray’s revivification of Balloo, particularly as he’s singing “The Bear Necessities,” could be the most transparent signifier of Disney trying to get money from a new generation by simply repeating itselfAnd in some ways it almost surely is. But there’s still plenty of merit to seeing this story retold across generations. (Not to mention the merit of The Jungle Book‘s contemplations on humanity’s fundamentally adverse relationship to nature through its poetic invocation of fire — which the animals refer to as man’s “red flower.”)

And because we’ve been subjected to Disney’s branded visions of childhood for so long, this one particularly nuanced vision that taps into the lovely, sad, systemic act of relinquishing that is the parent-child relationship gets to the core of experiences we understand on an almost instinctive level. As creepy as it might be to think that Disney has woven its way into what’s understood “instinctively,” the fact that it has makes the studio’s continued exploration of the relationships between children and the people who influence them surprisingly touching.

The Jungle Book opens today in wide release.