The Jungle Book – Engineering in Nature

I had the pleasure of seeing Jon Favreau’s newest film, The Jungle Book, the other night.  The film is a visual marvel supported by a fun story with intriguing themes and compelling characters.  I was not a biggest fan of the 1967 original animated film growing up; I always preferred The Lion King or 101 Dalmatians.  So I was happily surprised when I found myself engrossed in the story and the world Favreau and his very talented team of actors and visual effect artists created.  There is a lot to love about this film and one in particular character trait.

I love that Mowgli is an engineer.  At the beginning of the film, Mowgli is scorned by Bagheera (played with such warmth by Ben Kingsley) and the wolf pack for using his “tricks”, as his inventions and engineering abilities are called by his animal brethren.  He uses tools to make life easier for him, but the animals mistrust his human tricks and inventions because they understand the cruelty that humans can do to them and their home through technology.  But Mowgli is ignorant of that potential.  He views his tools not as a bad thing, but as a way to improve the lives and the world around him  He uses man’s creations and control of nature for the greater good, and not for destruction, as the film’s great villain Shere Kahn (wonderfully portrayed by Idris Elba) is wont to remind the film’s diminutive hero.

And Shere Kahn is right.  Human technology, as represented by the “red flower”, aka fire, in the film is justifiably feared by the animals.  The animals understand that humans have the potential to destroy their homes, to destroy the jungle in one fell swoop.  And that is incredibly viable.  Right now in the real world, great (in scope and not ethics) engineering feats have caused global warming, bleaching of reefs, the extermination of countless species.  Through pollution (caused by technology), over hunting (aided by technology), and deforestation (fueled by technology), humans have been destroying our world for generations.  And Shere Kahn and many of the animal characters see the terribleness that human “tricks” can cause.

But the film brilliantly also shows the greatness and sophistication in engineering.  Unlike a little film called Avatar, technology and humans aren’t meant to be the enemy.  They aren’t meant to be viewed as horrendous and unmitigated destruction.  Some characters, Shere Kahn, view mankind in this way, but those views stem more from his own personal history.  Whenever Mowgli uses his engineering prowess, it is for good.  He helps collect honey for Baloo (the best role and performance by Bill Murray in years) through an intricate series of pulleys, saves a baby elephant from a pit using fulcrums and vines as ropes, and a basic understanding of structural engineering during the climax of the film.  Mowgli represents the wonders that can arise through engineering.

jungle_book_king_louie.jpgMowgli uses simple tools to help his friends, not for power as King Louie (Christopher Walken in a role oozing with charisma and genuinely scary and intimidating) desires the ability to manipulate fire.  Mowgli’s engineering is a balance between man and nature.  He uses raw material, but never to destroy the environment; he uses it for rescuing, collection of food and water, for shelter, for support, for protection.  He uses it for his benefit and for the benefit of the environment around him.  Mowgli is the best kind of engineer, the one who sees the advantage of technology, but also understands the ramifications of using a particular technology and the importance of mitigating potential threatening bi-products.  Mowgli knows how to use tools to serve him and others in a positive manner, which is a character trait I love and one I appreciated seeing on the big screen.

I work as a civil engineer and live as a film geek.  Seeing my profession portrayed in a such a positive and thematically rich way made me elated.  To see those two aspects of my life, engineering and film, joined together, to see a film that applauds and heeds engineering is fantastic.  I hope children see what Mowgli does and understands that engineering and technology can be used for harm, but can and should be used to help those around us, including the natural world. I hope those children are then encouraged to build things and dabble in engineering.  This remake is wonderful, and I hope all who see it appreciate it as much as I do.

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