If you haven’t heard, there’s a new live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book out now (not to be confused with the new live-action The Jungle Book coming out later). I find it interesting that this is a property that we keep going back to time and again to rehash–there have been over 30(!) different productions of the story since 1942–and that sets my spidey-sense a’tingling, because let’s not mince words here: Rudyard Kipling was an unapologetic imperialist and racist. It’s not really something we should spend a lot of time arguing or qualifying; the man wrote the poem. “The White Man’s Burden,” where he outright encouraged dominion over the foreign “heathens” and the purging their cultural idiosyncrasies and traditions for a more suitably western, Christian identity. This makes sense, because Kipling was a rich, white British kid who spent much of his youth in Bombay (now Mumbai), and as we all know, rich white kids have some real problems with understanding socio-economic incongruity. Back in the 1800s, when this book was released, the typical solution for this if you were British was to just go around to places like the Caribbean or China or India and “civilize” them, a word which here means little more than subjugation and exploitation. But hey, at least they can speak the King’s English now, right? Disney has revisited Kipling’s The Jungle Book time and again at the box office to varying degrees of success, often failing to properly address the work’s imperialist subtext, or even sometimes making it worse. In that light, does Disney’s latest retelling avoid these uncomfortable ethnocentric parallels, or does it passively perpetuate the heinous ideologies of the past?
While not overtly racist as some of his other work, Kipling’s The Jungle Book (published in serial volumes via magazines starting in 1894) has long been interpreted to contain thematic emphasis on Kipling’s perceived faults in the heathen folk, employing the various animals in the story as stand-ins for undesirable aspects of local culture while the main character, feral human boy Mowgli, is the avatar for (Western) civilization. Bagheera the panther delivers the young boy first to the Seeonee wolf tribe, and the big cat and the wolves share a similar respect for tribal tradition and caste deference. Shere Khan is fearsome and boastful, but physically lame (and therefore lesser) from birth and afraid of man’s power over fire–perhaps an allusion to the British belief in Indian primitivity. The Bandar-Log Monkeys are shallow-minded thieves and fools who take up residence in a decaying ancient temple that lost its glory and relevance many centuries past.
Mowgli, of course, is the perfect Mary Sue of these adventures, employing the skills of man’s seemingly-innate ingenuity to save himself and his jungle friends, while also eventually coming to loathe the world of the local human tribes as well, thanks to their selfishness, stupidity and malevolence. Our man-cub becomes the ubermensch of the jungle, more intuitive and pragmatic than the feckless and superstitious human tribesmen (who think him to be a sorcerer due to his connections to his animal friends), and more noble than the savage beasts of his arboreal home. These days, the trope is known as “Mighty Whitey,” as seen in films such as Dancing with Wolves and Avatar, wherein the outsider becomes the best example of the native specimen. (Mowgli’s ethnicity here is fairly irrelevant due to the allegorical use of the animals.) Interestingly, Kipling’s story is much more narratively loose than the film versions, being a collection of vignettes spread out over Mowgli’s entire childhood instead of a singular cohesive tale, and skews much darker in places. For just one example, Mowgli defeats Shere Khan by trapping him within a trench during a buffalo stampede where the tiger gets trampled to death. Mowgli then takes and skins the carcass, taking the pelt as a trophy. The original text ends with a teenage Mowgli being somewhat despondent over the his fate. He’s been rejected by the animals of the jungle for being human and rejected by the world of men for having too strong a connection to the wilderness. In the end, he sets off to start a new life in a different part of the wild, alone but for a few of his wolf brothers. I have to wonder if this isn’t a sort of historical revisionism or personal separation on the part of the author; Kipling obviously felt a strong affinity for India, the land of his birth, but it can be argued through his writing that he never seemed to have felt Indian. His later settling in England and the United States seems to support the idea that his attraction to the Subcontinent was more romantic and filtered through a lens of exoticism, without acknowledging how his presence in India was related to the larger issue of British imperialist policy–the author was only born in India thanks to his father being in the employ of the British government, there to make academic observances and reports on Indian culture.
In 1967, Walt Disney assembled the various stories in Kipling’s books into a working narrative in his widely-popular animated version, but the lens of time hasn’t been terribly kind to the thematic problems within the work. Some of them might even be worse here than in Kipling. While some things are stricken from this version, such as Shere Khan’s disability, new concerning issues arise with Mowgli’s motivation to finally leave the his jungle home being his attraction to a girl from a local village, as well as the insertion of King Louie, the ape patriarch of the Bandar-Log monkeys. Louie’s appearance (Disney’s issues with orangutans’ natural geography aside) may have given some narrative focus to what was otherwise a somewhat muddled affair in the source text (there Baloo and Bagheera are aided by Kaa, the giant python, who hypnotizes and devours the monkeys whole), but his motivation for kidnapping Mowgli–learning how to become more human–as well as his conspicuously mannered jive-talkin’ personality should have made someone over at quality control in the Disney studios say, “Um, Walt, hey, about your blatant Louis Armstrong rip-off talking about wanting to be not be an ape anymore . . . .” While Disney may have taken many of the grim details and the ambiguous ending from Kipling’s text here (and perhaps accidentally the author’s thesis), they also inserted some regressive harmful ethnic stereotypes, and gifted Mowgli with a heteronormativity that never initially existed or mattered in the slightest.
Surprisingly, this new film out isn’t Disney’s first attempt at making a live-action version of this property, but if you forgot about 1994’s Jungle Book I can’t blame you–it’s fucking asinine. Taking little from the source material beyond some character names and locations, this version has Mowgli (perplexingly played by 28-year old Chinese-American martial artist Jason Scott Lee) teaming up with a British colonel against a gang of rogue soldiers setting out to steal King Louie’s hoard of treasure, and he falls in love with with the colonel’s daughter (of course) while saving the jungle. Yikes. I don’t even know where to start with that one, other than to acknowledge it was directed by Stephen Sommers, the shlockmeister behind such matinee fare as Van Helsing and the first two Brendan Fraser Mummy movies.
So how does the brand new live-action/CGI hybrid Disney version stack up in this context? Did director Jon Favreau smooth out those problematic bits of outdated bias, or does he hew to them out of tradition’s sake? Mostly, I think he tried to do the first, though some of that is hampered by it being a Disney tale with lots of public expectation with regards to content. But I feel like some of these problems may be rather innate to the idea behind the story; can you tell a story about how a human child becomes the best beast of the jungle and remove imperialist connotations from it entirely? Maybe not, especially given how much Kipling’s attitudes toward India inform the original work.
In Favreau’s version, many of the worrisome aspects from prior adaptations still take form, though some have been changed slightly. Bagheera is still obsessed with tradition and maintaining class divisions, and now he is the most fanatical of the creatures we meet in revering the elephants as deities. Other than gender, Kaa has changed little, still cast as a deceptive mystic who devours whole those foolish enough to be taken in by her hypnotic wiles. Baloo is not just lazy anymore, but a con-man (con-bear?) as well, using Mowgli’s intellect to score what he isn’t capable or crafty enough to get on his own. On the one hand, yes, it is still a movie about talking animals aimed at children, but I’d like to think Favreau had to be aware of some of the prior criticism of previous editions of this work with regards to the allegories on display, and I’m surprised that more wasn’t done here to square that. If you were hoping that this film fixed old problems where the characters were stand-ins for stereotypes for the indigenous peoples of India, I regret to inform you it does not entirely, but at least the worst offender (King Louie) has been suitably amended.
The most drastic alteration in this latest version has to do with (Major Spoilers)
So yes, it seems in a effort to give Shere Khan some greater nuance and depth (which is appreciated), they muddled the narrative and couldn’t quite stick the landing.
Past that, there’s still some troubling readings of the other characters, if viewed through the lens of Kipling’s implied “Mowgli=British/animals=Indians” viewpoint. Bagheera is still obsessed with fastidious adherence to tradition and How Things Are, the new film doing little to wipe away allusions to caste system endorsement from previous versions. Baloo is lazy, and too foolish to figure out how to help himself. The Bandar-Log monkeys still live in the dilapidated human temple, and while King Louie no longer carries his previous cringe-worthy traits, he still sings “I Wanna Be Like You,” a song of blatant racist projection where “lesser” persons are made to seem envious of their “superiors.” On top of all that, the movie repeatedly emphasizes the animals’ spiritual regard for the elephants as the “Makers of the Jungle,” which is such an obvious metaphor for Hindu belief systems that I would accuse Disney of being too on-the-nose if that wasn’t already made explicit in Kipling’s prior work, “How Fear Came,” a short story about the creation myth in his characters’ world. When Mowgli repeatedly and increasingly shows no great spiritual affection for the elephants in the film it’s very difficult to not see that as a very western disdain for foreign religion and customs. Likewise, considering the animals that do feel spiritually about the elephants are incapable of being pragmatic and helpful, it seems the authorial disdain for local spiritual practices is quite overt. This problematic reading is only exacerbated when Mowgli tames the elephants, literally dominating the jungle creatures’ gods.
Unlike in Kipling or the previous Disney version, Mowgli here doesn’t go back to the world of man, despite how much sense that would have made for a kid who was recently shunned by the whole jungle for nearly burning it to the ground. Instead, he completes his ubermensch checklist by finally showing how much better he is at being a jungle animal than his brother and sister wolves when he beats them all in a race. The film ends with him taking it easy back at his wolf den, resting comfortably in the knowledge that man is the best and most noble animal of all. And really, isn’t that what Kipling would have really wanted?
What is it that keeps us coming back to this story over and over again? Just within Disney’s versions alone (all five of them, not counting Tail Spin, the TV show featuring many of the same characters but now has them working for an airplane company where Baloo is a bush pilot–yeah, I don’t know how that pitch happened either), there is a wide range of interpretations of Kipling’s source material, none of which really adapt it all that faithfully. So why keep retelling this story? And why do none of these adaptations manage to eschew the unpleasant imperialist connotations innate in the material since the beginning?
I worry that the reason we keep returning to this tale is little more than a fascination with the exoticism of India. It’s hard to support an argument for something with more gravitas or universality being the clarion calling us back to this property. No major adaptation yet seems to care about hewing to Kipling’s original tale, with all its jangly structure and unapologetic murder of the villains by the protagonists, and the themes and major details of the story change wildly from version to version. Is Mowgli a gangly innocent child, or a sexy kung-fu animal whisperer? Does Mowgli return to the world of man or stay a creature of the jungle? Does Shere Khan die, or flee the jungle, or neither? There’s no imperative, it seems, to find something more constant and universal in this brand other than “young male lives in jungle with animals.” At least through the many interpretations of, say, Les Miserables, Valjean is always the ex-con on the run, Javert is always the lawman hounding him, and Marius is always that guy who is annoying. There is a coherence and structure there that is maintained, despite the other details of each individual iteration. But not with The Jungle Book. I fear that our long public fascination with Mowgli and friends goes little beyond the allure of a tropical world of talking animals. In that light, it’s hard to argue that any version of this story is necessary–that even if you somehow got past the imperialist subtext, you’d be left with nothing but a shallow exoticism. I suppose that, too, would have appealed to Kipling.