You know the Disney classic, but did you know of the many other Jungle Book films? Shaz investigates.
Nearly fifty years after Mowgli, Baloo, and Bagheera opened in theaters in animated form, Disney has brought back these classic characters in another “live-action” remake. This latest reimagined version of Rudyard Kipling’s stories pays tribute to The Jungle Book from 1967 as well as revisits the underlying themes of the original writer of these stories.
Many Gen-Xers were raised watching Disney’s animated classics, including The Jungle Book. With its memorable music and colorful characters, this fun-filled adventure has been a favorite for generations. Although most of our generation don’t remember seeing the movie in theaters in 1967, many of us recall seeing it during its rerelease in 1978.
The Jungle Book opens with Bagheera’s discovery of an infant boy in the jungle, far from the civilization of man. Bagheera delivers the child to a wolf mother where he is raised as a part of the wolfpack for ten years. Upon the return of Shere Khan, a tiger who hates man, Bagheera embarks on a quest to return Mowgli to the man village in an hopes of saving the boy’s life. Mowgli, on the other hand, is not interested in leaving the jungle to be with man. He feels at home along the animals he considers to be his friends. Along their journey, the adventurers meet several characters who impress viewers with their songs and personalities. Kaa, the python, tries to eat the man-cub. Colonel Hathi and his elephant Jungle Patrol march through the jungle, insistent that the boy is to leave the jungle and return to live among his own kind. The carefree Baloo quickly adopts Mowgli as his student, hoping to teach him the finer things of life — namely, relaxation, laziness, and a general avoidance of responsibility and work. But the pairing seems short-lived when the monkeys capture Mowgli and take him to the ruins of the lost city where he is delivered to King Louie. This king of the monkey people wants to be like Mowgli, a man, thinking all he needs to be human is to harness the power of fire, the “red flower”. Vultures, patterned to resemble the Beatles, invite Mowgli to join their happy band of outcasts. Suddenly, Shere Khan catches up to Mowgli and tries to kill him. After the tiger flees, being frightened by a fire set by lightning, Baloo reluctantly agrees to help Bagheera return Mowgli to the man village, where Mowgli meets a girl from the village and is immediately smitten sufficiently to leave his friends behind to pursue the object of his affections. Though intentionally unfaithful to Kipling’s original story, the characters and songs won the hearts of audiences everywhere, making The Jungle Book a timeless classic that has entertained viewers for nearly fifty years.
The Jungle Book was originally a collection of Kipling’s short stories first published in book form in 1894. Since then, several films and television specials have adapted the stories of Mowgli. Notably, and sometimes forgotten in the shadow of the Walt Disney Animation version, is Alexander Korda’s 1942 film, Jungle Book. In this version, Mowgli has returned to the man village, but soon returns to the jungle to hunt his old enemy, Shere Khan. Bagheera threatens the men who oppose Mowgli, Kaa is a friend and trusted advisor of the man-cub, and the wolves make appearances throughout the movie as do the monkeys in the lost city of the king. The ruins of the lost city are not only the haunt of the monkey people, but a repository of a wealth of treasure, a source of the antagonists’ covetousness that leads to their demise. Many more jungle animals interact with the humans in the movie, which ultimately condemns man as the enemy of nature, concluding with the jungle being engulfed in flames because of man’s greed and thirst for bloody revenge. Mowgli heroically saves the animals and innocent people by leading them to an island shelter in the middle of the stream and then returns to the jungle with his animal brothers.
A century after Kipling’s stories were published in book form, Disney produced a live-action version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book with Sam Neill, John Cleese, Cary Elwes, and Jason Scott Lee that begins with Mowgli being lost from a jungle expedition because Shere Khan had come into the camp to exact vengeance on sport hunters who, according to Mowgli’s father’s explanation, had come into his house and stolen his dinner. Mowgli finds Bagheera in the beginning of his journey, rescues Baloo, and is introduced to the wolf pack. In this account, a grown Mowgli ventures into the ruins of the lost city when King Louie taunts him with the bracelet he had been given years previously by Kitty, the young girl in the expedition. Mowgli battles and conquers Kaa in the water, earning the reverence of the monkey people and their king and gains the bracelet as his prize. Soon after, Mowgli meets a grown Kitty in the jungle and seeks to win her heart (again) by “protecting” her from a “dangerous” bear (Baloo) and her human “attacker”, her boyfriend William. Eventually, Kitty sees the bracelet that he wears and realizes that this jungle boy is Mowgli, long-believed to have been killed in the commotion that arose from Shere Khan’s attack. She makes it her quest to “civilize” this savage from the jungle (think, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes with Christopher Lambert). Two themes prevail throughout this remnant of ‘90s Disney live-action movies: the purity of love, compassion, and friendship, and the degradation of man in his lust for power, greed, and killing. In this rendition, Shere Khan is conquered, not by being killed, but because the tiger sees Mowgli as a creature of the jungle and not as a man.
The recent Disney remake of The Jungle Book combines some aspects of their original animated version with their later live-action version of the story, as well as some thematic tones of other renditions of the story. Opening with the same theme as the 1967 animated version, this movie immediately captured the attention of moms and dads, and even some grandmothers and grandfathers, who were bringing their children to theaters to experience this old story in a new way. Bagheera, Baloo, Kaa, King Louie, and the wolfpack all reprise their roles from the animated version, some of whom sing the familiar tunes by the Sherman brothers and Terry Gilkyson in their appearances (Kaa’s song is revisited in the closing credits), much to the joy of fans of the ’67 film. Amidst these gleeful, and sometimes darkly comical combinations of songs and imminent danger, remains the pervasive theme of the struggle between man and nature. In hopes of both staying alive and freeing his animal family and friends from the oppressive paws (claws and teeth included, of course) of the deadly Shere Khan, Mowgli inadvertently endangers the entire jungle by bringing the “red flower” into the animals’ realm to fend off the tiger, setting the only home he has ever known on fire. In the end, he heroically accepts responsibility for his actions by engineering a means of dowsing the flames thereby saving the jungle. Unlike many popular films of our era that simplify the man versus nature conflict, this story shows that man has the power to both destroy and save the environment in which he lives, through humility, intellect, and (ironically opposed to Baloo’s carefree attitude) accepting responsibility for his own actions. Mowgli first saved the animals from doom at the hands of the tiger, then saved them from an equally terrible fate by the strength of the elephants.
Some have suggested that this film may be too violent and frightening for young viewers. Parents need to use their own judgment relative to their own children in deciding if this film is appropriate for them. However, the implications of danger from Kaa and King Louie in the ’67 feature are fully realized in this live-action/CGI heavy remake of the classic film in a way that even children will understand. By adding Shere Khan’s backstory to the movie also provides a clearer picture of the tiger’s hatred of man as well as the murderous nature of his character. He is clearly a villain not to be pitied in the least. With Disney following today’s pop-culture penchant for making heroes out of villains (think Maleficent) and blurring the moral lines between good and evil, it’s refreshing to have a villain that is not only truly evil, but one who isn’t human. Man does not become the enemy in this film, but the singular savior of the jungle. Instead of preaching political polemics, this movie promotes the deeper aspects of human motives like arrogance, humility, selfishness, compassion, vengeance, and sacrifice. These are the concepts which need to be taught to every generation because these are the things that affect our decisions as men. These are the character qualities that make us human and judge us to be either good or evil. And though the storyline of this movie departs from Kipling’s original tales, these are the lessons he sought to teach through all his tales, from The Jungle Book to his Just-So Stories. So judge for yourself whether this movie is faithful to the original or not.
Christian. Husband. Father. TechnoRetro Dad. A child of the ’70s and ’80s, shazbazzar grew up in a galaxy far, far away even while residing in the land of iron and coal in a small town in northeastern Kentucky. Enthralled with many aspects of science fiction and fantasy, he embraced 3 3/4″ action figures and playsets, a wide variety of games, and all kinds of cartoons, TV shows, and movies in his childhood. Now living in the South, he shares the fun and fandom of his youth with his own kids who, in turn, are introducing him to their own interests.