As a whole, The Jungle Book is a wonderfully structured film. Cause and effect build organically against each other, with the environment and character motivations weaving together in an elaborate dance. So it is a bold statement to say that the second meeting with the elephants – the Pit Scene as I will call it – is the best-developed scene in the entire movie. And that’s a statement I’m going to stand by.
By best-developed, I mean that this scene has so many threads that interconnect with this one event to create a very pivotal moment. This scene could not exist as such an impressive feat of storytelling were it a part of a lesser movie.
Previous Scene Pay-off
When you first watch the film, Mowgli making eye contact with the baby elephant seems just like a nice callback to the 1967 cartoon, and it is. A rather sweet, unobtrusive nod to Colonel Hathi’s son that doesn’t interrupt the majesty of the scene by recalling the goofiness of their animated counterparts. And I expected no more from that. However, what this scene did was set-up a visual clue for the audience to cue onto in the Pit Scene.
When Mowgli finds the elephants in distress, we see only adults. When Mowgli peers over into the pit, his eyes widen, and he gives a gasp before running, we realized that there’s something important down there. Of course, it’s not a major twist that it’s the infant in the pit, but the movie gave us certain clues to tell us what was in the pit without directly showing us.
Two other previous scenes meld together to set up the method of the rescue. As Mowgli works alongside Baloo and a few other Jungle critters to gather honey, we see the vines being tied to Baloo in a harness-like fashion. Baloo is about the size of the baby elephant, and in addition to making sense as part of Mowgli’s contraption, it also demonstrates that Mowgli has had experience tying vines around animals in a non-harmful manner.
While this scene gives us visual clues, we also get a verbal hint in the second scene. As Mowgli is excitedly showing off his tricks to Bagheera, one of the first things he mentions – in fact the only thing he mentions outside of the honey stash – is that he’s been weaving vines together to make them longer and stronger. Strong enough, perhaps, to lift a small elephant out of a pit. This is reinforced when Mowgli grabs the vines for the rescue itself. The camera makes sure our eyes are drawn to which vines the boy grabs, having Mowgli take an extra action to set aside the smaller, weaker ones.
Though not a call back to anything in the movie itself, the very concept of the Pit Scene was also a nice nod to an story mentioned offhandedly by Kipling in The Second Jungle Book about “… how [Mowgli] saved Hathi the Silent from being once more trapped in a pit with a stake at the bottom…” (“Red Dog”)
Future Scene Set-Up
In terms of future plot points, the Pit Scene really only does one job. It avoids a Jungle-deus ex machina at the film’s end. The first elephant scene set-up the godhood status of the elephants, but the Pit Scene established a relationship between Mowgli and the elephants. It gives the audience a reason for the elephants to come specifically to the man-cub after the battle and to take direction from him to save the Jungle.
Furthermore, I believe the structure of the Pit Scene establishes Mowgli’s role in dowsing the forest fire he begins at the film’s climax. At the pit, after he bows to them, they allow him among their number and then follow his lead to fix the issue at hand. In the scene following Shere Khan’s demise, Mowgli bows to them and then is next seen at the head of the herd. The elephants were the ones who made the rivers run where they wished, but Mowgli was the one who showed them how.
I have already talked extensively about Bagheera’s arc in this film, but I want to focus specifically on how this scene lets us know that it is as much about Bagheera as it is about Mowgli.
To begin with, we once again have the camera telling us what we should be focusing on for this scene. Before we even see the elephants, we are shown Bagheera asleep. He doesn’t wake when Mowgli first passes him by, so there’s no action on which to cue in. This framing is used to simply tell us “watch Bagheera.” It tells us that Bagheera is important to the upcoming events.
Furthermore the reveal of the baby elephant is not for the audience – it’s for Bagheera. By the time that the infant is pulled into view, we have already been given enough clues to who is in the pit. But it’s Bagheera’s arc that is about to make its turn, and so the scene chooses to place us in his paws.
Many reviews have talked about the excellent strategy of the cinematography to film everything from about about Mowgli’s eye level. It makes the world seem larger, more dangerous, and it helps us empathize with the man-cub. This strategy is exactly what happens in the Pit Scene with Bagheera.
Not only does the camera cut repeatedly back to Bagheera – three times throughout the rescue – but it also keeps a distance from the action. This cinematography means that not only do we get to see Bagheera’s reactions, but we get to see what he sees. As Mowgli vanishes from his sight, so the man-cub vanishes from ours. As the elephant is revealed to Bagheera, so is it revealed to us. While we may have already picked up on the clues presented to us as an audience, this scene invites us to emotionally connect with Bagheera’s development as a character.
When Mowgli’s head touched the ground in a bow, I realized the importance of this scene to his character arc. It’s the first time we get to truly see Mowgli make a claim to his place in the Jungle and be accepted by the Jungle in return. Previously to this, we have seen either one or the other occur for Mowgli, but never both in full.
The wolf pack accepts Mowgli as one of their own, but his tricks and any deviation from how a wolf is supposed to behave is shut down. Thus Mowgli cannot claim his place as a man-cub in the Jungle. He must be a wolf to be accepted. Further reprimands from Bagheera solidify this dichotomy between Mowgli’s claim and the Jungle’s acceptance, which is one of the main emotional conflicts for the boy.
At first glance, it might seem that Baloo’s teaching is the first time we see where the claim and acceptance meet. After all, Mowgli is freely using his tricks while Baloo and the other Jungle critters follow along with his plans. However, this acceptance comes not because of who Mowgli is, but rather what he can do. Baloo will of course become fond of the boy as the story progresses, but his initial encouragement for Mowgli to stay is not to meet the boy’s need for belonging; it’s to meet his own stomach’s desires.
It’s understandable that Mowgli would want to stay with Baloo, even after discovering the hibernation schtick was a con. After all, it’s the first place he feels fully accepted. Yet this is not Mowgli making a claim on his own terms; it’s following Baloo’s lead. It’s not the Jungle’s acceptance of Mowgli’s claim to a place, it’s Baloo’s acceptance of Mowgli meeting his needs.
That is why the Pit Scene is key. Mowgli uses vines that were created under Baloo’s encouragement to rescue the elephant, but to get close to them, he must follow Bagheera’s teachings to show the herd respect through bowing. In doing both, the very deities of the Jungle welcome Mowgli into their presence. Neither Baloo nor Bagheera encourage him to engage with the elephants; in fact, both of them are severely against the idea. But it’s both of their philosophies uniting together in a moment that belongs uniquely to Mowgli, and it’s Mowgli alone who made the decision to help.
That decision to help is one of the key aspects of Mowgli’s character. The Pit Scene is the perfect demonstration of a line that he will shout in grief and rage later on in the film, “Somebody’s got to do something!” However, that is such a grand topic that it is deserving of its own piece.
The Pit Scene is far from being the only excellent scene in the movie, but it is the best-developed. It ties so many threads together that it could have easily been a tangled mess. Instead, it’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking that makes the most of its cinematography, script, characters, and previously-established worldbuilding.