Saturday, May 18, 2013

Disney's The Jungle Book and Cross-Cultural Adoption

“I knew someday that he would have to go back to his own kind.”

Disney’s iconic 1967 kid flick tells the story of Mowgli, a ten-year-old child who has been raised in the jungle (by wolves, but I was trying to avoid the cliché.) The wolf pack has learned that a vicious tiger named Shere Kahn has come to the jungle to kill Mowgli. The pack decides that Mowgli must be taken to a human village. Bagheera, the panther who initially found Mowgli, tries to escort him out of the jungle. Mowgli protests, and attaches himself to Baloo, a carefree bear. Mowgli faces dangers while un(der)supervised by Baloo and Bagheera, but  it’s a Disney and Mowgli comes out OK. He eventually does decide to go to a human village, but not for safekeeping from Shere Kahn.  

How is This Relevant to Adoption?
Bagheera finds the infant Mowgli alone and crying in a basket. Bagheera brings Mowgli to a family of wolves because they’ve just had infants and, he assumes, could make room for one more. In an interesting (and painful, unhelpful) connection to cross-cultural adoption, the jungle community tries to force Mowgli to leave and return to “his own kind.” Mowgli demonstrates indiscriminate attachment; he clings to Bagheera and then Baloo in an effort to achieve stability (Mowgli doesn’t want to leave the jungle.) When they can’t promise it to him, he begins to attach to unsavory characters who promise him that he can stay in the jungle, but who have selfish motives (Kaa, a snake, wants to eat Mowgli. Louie, an ape, wants to use Mowgli to advance his own cause.)

Strong Points
Bagheera and Baloo demonstrate their strong loyalty to Mowgli. They are trying to do what’s best for him, even though it pains them, and they put themselves into harm’s way to protect Mowgli.

Weak Points
Cross-cultural adoptees may struggle with this film. The predominant theme is that Mowgli has to go back “to his own kind.” He eventually does when he is smitten for the first human girl he sees, and wordlessly leaves his jungle guardians. Throughout the film, though, Mowgli tries to attach to anyone who will let him stay. He quickly uses terms like “poppa” and “cousin” in an effort to gain acceptance and permanency, and even declares that he is not a human anymore, but a bear, in an effort to feel solidarity with Baloo. The WHOLE POINT OF THE MOVIE is about the jungle getting rid of Mowgli because he doesn’t fit and he’s dangerous to have around. 

The potential for rejection is present from the beginning of the film: Bagheera confides that, “if I’d known how deeply I was to be involved [in Mowgli’s life, when I saw him in the basket], I would have obeyed my instincts and walked away.” The theme of the film seems to be that people belong with their own kind – the apes are described as “undesirable,” humans aren’t to be in the jungle. When Mowgli does meet a girl, she’s singing about her father “hunting in the forest,” which gives further, unrecognized assent to the fact that the jungle creatures and Mowgli really shouldn’t be friends.

The film directly speaks against cross-cultural adoption. It even uses the word “adopt.” It is so unsubtle that even a pre-schooler will catch it. Bagheera, a wise and caring panther, explains to Baloo, “You can’t adopt Mowgli as your son. Birds of a feather should flock together. You wouldn’t marry a panther, would you?” Baloo protests, “I promised him [that he could stay with me.] I love that kid. I love him like he was my own kid.” But Bagheera responds that, if Baloo loves Mowgli, he must send him away. When Baloo does tell Mowgli that he’s going to send him away, Mowgli runs away.

Some kids may find it scary that Shere Kahn is out to kill Mowgli. Mowgli is kidnapped at one point. A snake nearly eats him. In a frightening scene, Shere Kahn threatens to kill Baloo. They fight. Fire is involved.

This film was made over 45 years ago, and there are some elements which, while accepted then, now seem inaccurate, insensitive, and inappropriate. Bagheera confides that he was certain that the mother wolf would take care of Mowgli “ thanks to maternal instinct,” but that he was “not so sure about the father.” Some viewers have cited the portrayal of Louie and his kingdom as being racially insensitive.
Kaa, the snake, sings a creepy song, encouraging Mowgli to “Trust In Me.” He’s trying to lure Mowgli to his doom. And Kaa is voiced by the same actor who’s most famous for being the voice of Winnie the Pooh. His voice isn’t changed for the role – so for kids who like Winnie the Pooh, this will be really creepy.

There’s so much wrong with The Jungle Book from an adoption perspective, which is sad, because it is a classic film. But kids could have a really hard time with this one. Some animated Disney and Disney-esque films do a better job of handling cross-cultural adoption. Check out Kung Fu PandaThe Tigger Movie, and Tarzan. Here’s my suggestion: the songs are the best part of the movie, and the songs don’t really have anything to do with adoption. Baloo’s rendition of “The Bear Necessities” is a classic. Buy a CD of Disney songs, or a sing-along DVD, but seriously think about skipping the movie itself. 

Questions for Discussion After the Film
Why did Bagheera and Baloo want Mowgli to leave the jungle?
Why did Mowgli want to stay?
If you were one of the jungle animals, what would you have decided about Mowgli?


  1. What an eye opening review!
    I'm glad I read it! I watched this movie and particpated in the stage production for many years, but never really identified with it as an adoption fable. I saw it more as a sort of "coming of age" style story where Mowgli was looking for his place in the world, rather than a literal 'family'. I could relate to the feeling of being 'in the jungle' as an adoptee, rather than being in the family (the human world)... but after reading this, I'll be a bit more sensative to those undertones.

    To play devil's Advocate for a moment...

    My take away from this film was "be careful who you trust" and "those who truely love you will have your best interests at heart, even if it isn't what YOU want or want to hear". For example, his jungle pals(Bagheera and Baloo)felt they were both trying to do what was best for him, even though they didn't agree on what that was for most of the film. Mowgli was confused about why the other creatures (humans, wolves) he felt were his family 'abandoned' him. That confusion and being on high guard against others who are supposed to want what's best seem to be common feelings among adoptees of all races/ages/means.
    Gravitating toward those w/ honeyed tongues (Kaa, King Louie, and Sheer Khan) who will tell you what you want to hear but have an agenda (King Louie wanted fire, Kaa and Sheer Khan wanted, well, dinner)is dangerous, yet all too common. It's common for those who feel 'lost' and 'unwanted' to gravitate towards those who say what we want to hear - even if it's a lie.
    Just because they are telling you what you want to hear, doesn't mean their feelings/words are geniune or motivated by the love we (adoptees and, well, all humans) crave.

    I actually never considered this as a lesson in cross-cultural adoption, or adoption tale, just a "child lost in the world, finding his place" story. Thanks for reviewing this film! It made me much more aware. (Oh - Kung Fu Panda isn't a Disney movie, but a great one! Have you reviewed Disney's Chicken Little yet?)

    1. Hey J - I think Disney probably intended it as a coming of age story rather than an adoption story; I try to see where there are connections to adoption, even if they're not the most pronounced part of the story.

      The messages that you take away from the film are valid - and are actually probably the messages that the filmmakers intended to come through. The interplay between Bagheera and Baloo is great --- people can want the best for a child, but think differently about what is best - I see that, for sure, in the internet adoption community, and perhaps even more directly in interactions with other social workers.

      If you'd be interested in turning this into a "second opinion on the Jungle Book," I'd really love to post it :)

      I haven't done Chicken Little yet -- what's your take on it?


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