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How 'The Jungle Book' Movie Can Spark Empathetic Discussions in Adoptive Families

On opening night, our family of five went to see. The excitement among the kids was palpable. I sat between my oldest and youngest daughters, one my beloved through adoption, another my beloved through the biology of my body.
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Warning: This is a review of 'The Jungle Book' from the lens of an adoptive family, and it contains plot SPOILERS.

On opening night, our family of five went to see The Jungle Book. The excitement among the kids was palpable. I sat between my oldest and youngest daughters, one my beloved through adoption, another my beloved through the biology of my body.

From the opening scene, the imagery was stunning. Director Jon Favreau pulled off what seemed to be an impossible feat -- his CGI animals were so lifelike that their fur rippled with the movement of their muscles.

Mowgli, played with astonishing skill by child actor Neel Sethi, captured my heart with his big, dark eyes and flash of a smile. Early in the film, Shere Khan -- the giant tiger that was maimed by Mowgli's biological father when the human tried to defend himself by thrusting fire in the tiger's face -- established that he was a vicious and relentless predator.

Shere Khan killed Mowgli's father on that fateful night, but baby Mowgli remained safely hidden.

From then on, the human boy lived under the protection of Bagheera, a sleek and powerful black panther who found Mowgli as a toddler wandering alone in the jungle.

Bagheera brought Mowgli to a caring wolf pack, and the wolves adopted the little boy, although Bagheera was never far away from the boy he grew to love. Akela, the leader of the wolf pack, became Mowgli's father, and Akela's mate, Raksha, lovingly took on the role of Mowgli's mother.

Mowgli's brothers and sisters were the wolf pups, and he was very close with them, particularly with the runt of the litter, a darling pup named Gray. Mowgli and Gray were the two children most different from the rest of the pack, and it was no surprise that they shared a tight bond.

About a decade after the wolves adopted Mowgli, Shere Khan returned, demanding that the wolves hand over the boy to him. The wolves had to decide what to do in the face of great danger.

Some of the wolves wanted to send Mowgli back to the man village, both to keep the pack safe and to keep Mowgli safe. His father, Akela, was desperately torn about what to do. As Mowgli listened to the wolves debating his future, both my oldest daughter and I whispered to each other that we were upset that Mowgli's adoptive family might send him away. My daughter mentioned it again several days later, as we were discussing the movie with two adoption social workers.

Cleverly, the decision was moved from the hands of the wolves to Mowgli himself. Mowgli walked up to the wolf elders and insisted that he would be leaving the pack, because he wanted to spare his wolf family from being attacked by the evil Shere Khan.

As an adoptive mom, I was very sad during this scene. However, there was a wonderful and touching exchange between Mowgli and his mother, Raksha. She looked him in the eyes and firmly told him that he would always be her son, no matter what, regardless of where or with whom he lived. I could see that my oldest daughter was very moved by this conversation, as was I. It softened the blow of the fact that Mowgli was leaving his family.

After Mowgli left, his brother Gray missed him. As time passed without Mowgli, Gray grew withdrawn and sad. The wolf cub didn't want to play or eat. Gray's unhappiness was important to show the audience. The separation of siblings is a painful aspect of both foster care and adoption, and The Jungle Book depicted this with sensitivity. For kids who have difficulty discussing their own sadness -- because they have built protective walls around their true emotions -- this storyline can provide a way for them to access their feelings.

Shere Khan grew enraged when he learned that the wolves had allowed Mowgli to leave the pack, because Shere Khan wanted to kill Mowgli. Shere Khan demonstrated his power and anger by swiftly killing Mowgli's wolf father, Akela, in retaliation.

Knowing that Mowgli would return to the pack if he learned what had happened, Raksha forbade anyone to go find Mowgli and tell him about Akela's death. In this instance, we see Raksha sacrificing her own feelings for the safety of Mowgli. As much as she missed Mowgli and wanted him to come home, she knew that if he returned to the pack, Shere Khan would be waiting to kill him.

This story line is also relevant to the world of foster care and adoption. Sometimes children are separated from the people they love in order to keep the children safe. The Jungle Book provides ample story analogies for those seeking to explain difficult custody situations.

For the next forty-five minutes or so, the movie moved into a more lighthearted phase. Mowgli met Baloo, and he and the enormous bear developed a wonderful friendship. Mowgli had intended to go to the man village, but Baloo persuaded him to stay and use his "tricks" (his human inventions) to help Baloo obtain copious amounts of honey.

Baloo was the first animal to encourage Mowgli to use his human brain to invent things; the wolves had been uncomfortable with his tricks, and his wolf parents had tried to make him assimilate. Mowgli's struggle provides an excellent story analogy for adoptees that feel pressured to be exactly like their adoptive families. Adoptive parents can use Mowgli's experiences to open empathetic discussions with their children about how hard it is to fit in.

After a honeymoon period of living happily with Baloo, Mowgli learned the truth about what happened to his wolf father, Akela. Mowgli felt agonized. Shere Khan had now killed both his fathers -- his human father and then his wolf father -- and Mowgli needed to stop him.

Mowgli ran to the man village, stole a goblet of fire -- the dangerous and mysterious "red flower" -- and raced back to where the wolves lived to confront Shere Khan.

But fire is hard to control, and a few errant sparks ignited a raging fire in the jungle. Set against the backdrop of flames and destruction, Mowgli and Shere Khan engaged in a final battle.

Mogli's wolf family, moved by his bravery and loyalty, came to fight alongside him, as did his friends Bagheera and Baloo. The animals of the jungle all united in support of Mowgli, who had often used his intelligence to help them.

When it appeared that all hope was lost, Mowgli held firm and used his human intelligence and his "tricks" to save his own life, even as Shere Khan died a fiery death. Mowgli also used his brain to figure out how to stop the fire before it destroyed the entire jungle.

From the lens of an adoptive family, the most important part of the movie was the end. In the original Disney film, young Mowgli met a beautiful young human girl and decided to return to the man village. This story line is commonly found in fairy tales and fantasy stories -- the adopted child always returns to his or her biological family, where the child "belongs."

In the 2016 movie of The Jungle Book, Mowgli ended up staying with his wolf family. There was a key moment at the end where Mowgli acknowledged that he was not a wolf, even though he was a member of the wolf pack. Instead of trying to suppress his "tricks" and the ways in which he was different from the jungle animals, Mowgli learned to accept and embrace his differences.

The attitude of the wolf pack changed, too. Raksha stopped trying to suppress Mowgli's human qualities, and she allowed him to celebrate his differences while also remaining a cherished part of the pack. The evolution of the wolf family's acceptance of Mowgli's humanity represents the parenting style that I believe is critical to a successful adoption -- a realization that your child is his or her own person, apart from and simultaneously a part of your family.

I highly recommend that adoptive and foster families go see The Jungle Book and use it as a springboard for empathetic discussions and personal growth. Be cautious about taking very young children, however, as the sudden, loud pouncing of predators can be frightening, and the fire at the end is scary. My 5-year-old spent much of the movie clutching my hand, although she did love the movie. My 9-year-old and 12-year-old daughters were fine!

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