Posted by: kshayes513 | February 12, 2017

Watching The Jungle Book and Writing Child Characters

Bagheera, Baloo, Mowgli and Raksha from 2016 Jungle Book

Mowgli the man-cub (Neel Sethi) and his animal family. (©2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

I never liked Disney’s animated version of The Jungle Book. Since I grew up reading Kipling’s stories, I felt the Disney version just borrowed the characters and the premise and dropped them into an entirely different, “Disneyfied” story, with juvenile cartoon comedy and a couple of catchy tunes.

So one of the great improvements I found in last year’s remake was director Jon Favreau’s commitment to draw as much from the books as he could. Those literary elements pull this version well away from the childish tone and characters of the animated movie, and also pull its storyline in some new directions.

The result is a stronger story, with a character-driven plot that creates more satisfying drama, humor and suspense. I can’t imagine anyone shedding a single tear over the animated movie, but there are some tearworthy moments here, as well as some frighteningly intense moments when Mowgli is being pursued by one of his enemies.

Plus, The Jungle Book is visually gorgeous, with flawless digital backgrounds and nearly flawless digital animals. Even if you don’t find the story absorbing, it’s well worth a watch just for the eye candy.

Of course the animal characters are voiced by a distinguished cast, with some inspired choices, like Bill Murray’s Baloo, Scarlet Johansson’s Kaa, and Christopher Walken’s King Louie. However the standout, and the best reason of all to watch this movie is Neel Sethi, the young Indian-American actor who plays Mowgli. He is perfect every moment he is on screen: angry, frightened, happy, perplexed, fierce, curious, funny, lonely and 100% child all the way through.

My one criticism of  this movie involves Mowgli, and it brings me to the writing part of this post.  Soon after Mowgli meets Baloo, the bear cons him into steal honeycombs, on the grounds that Baloo needs to feed up for hibernation. This brought an eyeroll from me: “Tropical bears don’t hibernate! I thought they were going for some animal realism.”

Then Bagheera shows up and produces the same eyeroll, telling Mowgli that bears do not hibernate. Fine. No, wait, not fine. Mowgli has lived all his life in a jungle that contains bears. So he should know already that these bears don’t hibernate.

And this isn’t the only time the writers make Mowgli unrealistically ignorant for the sake of exposition or a minor plot point. In the opening sequence, Mowgli runs through the trees to keep up with his wolf cub siblings on the ground. He speeds along branches and jumps from tree to tree faster than most people can move on the ground. Then a dry, dead limb breaks under him and he tumbles. And Bagheera lectures him on looking out for dead branches. Seriously? No one could reach that level of speed and agility in trees without learning to spy out a safe route on the run, including spotting dead branches yards ahead.

Any writer of fiction who has gotten past the basics knows to avoid the “as you know, Joe” form of exposition, where characters tell each other things they both know, as a clumsy way of providing background or description. Yet this script is making a similar mistake.

In the real world, adults do assume that children always need to be educated and instructed by adults, because they are presumed to know less. So the writers think that because Mowgli is a child, they can provide exposition by having Bagheera tell Mowgli things they want the audience to know – without any regard for whether Mowgli’s ignorance is realistic.

BUT in the real world, kids actually know an enormous amount about their own familiar environments, and about anything they have experienced firsthand, or even secondhand from their friends. They may not have an adult’s understanding of the whys, but you can be certain they know how things work and how people are going to behave. At the classroom, hallway and playground level your child knows far more about what goes on in her school than you or even her teachers.

And this is why using a child’s supposed ignorance as a means of exposition can backfire. A child’s youth is not a prop for weak narrative technique.  Your child characters deserve to be treated with as much respect and understanding as your adult characters. You can certainly have adults in your story condescend to the children, if it’s in character.  Just make sure that you as writer never condescend to them.

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