In a review of Rudyard Kipling’s notebooks, freshly published in 1920, Virginia Woolf observed that much of his prose betrays an embarrassment about some desire he would rather keep hidden. This rueful devotion produces, in Woolf’s view, the crude shouting in his work, “Hurrah for the Empire!” plus its opposite gesture: “put[ting] out his tongue at its enemies.” These crass and shallow dimensions of his writing disguise his “feeling, perhaps, that a grown man should not enjoy making bridges, and using tools, and camping out as much as he does.” Woolf contends that Kipling’s vision is tragically flawed, since boyish frolicking to glorify Empire “is the passion that gives his writing its merit, and the excuse that vitiates it” (240).
Woolf’s concession that there is “merit” in Kipling’s writing, despite its vaunting of imperialism, supplies a more generous critique than that granted by the phalanx of postcolonial critics for whom Kipling represented the apotheosis of Victorian political turpitude. Yet part of the reason that the so-called “Bard of Empire” has hung around beyond mere historical curiosity is the energy of his work, its infectious passion that might catch even the least likely admirer of boys’ adventurism in its sweep. The seminal postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak once wrote that she “rather like[d] the so-called English classics—shamefacedly in the way of a Kipling Bengali” (268). The trouble with Kipling is that his works are so compulsively readable, even if they are ideologically problematic—which makes him a perfect partner for Walt Disney.
The pleasure of “making bridges, and using tools, and camping out,” as Woolf put it, persists in the latest product from this durable partnership: Walt Disney Pictures’s new live-action retelling of Kipling’s The Jungle Books. In outline form, the plot of The Jungle Book (2016), directed by Jon Favreau, hews closely to Disney’s original version, the animated musical from 1967 that turned Mowgli and friends—especially the friends—into deities in the franchising and merchandising pantheon. Both versions tell of an abandoned “man-cub” raised by wolves in an Indian forest, stalked by a ferocious tiger with an English accent, and nurtured by a legalistic panther and a phlegmatic singing bear. In both, the narrative arc is propelled by the tiger Shere Khan’s bloodlust for Mowgli, though the plot detours into sequences with Baloo the Bear, the duplicitous python Kaa, and the megalomaniacal Louie, King of the Apes—all of which stand apart from the central storyline. Portions of Kipling’s tales are extracted and deployed in a picaresque form, with little adventures strung along by a primary motive to bring Mowgli back to the world of Men and out of Shere Khan’s ravenous path. This structure allows for much moment-by-moment excitement, but it leaves the film overall less memorable than the individual set-pieces and songs.
Many of the new film’s stylistic thrills are indebted to our current cinematic moment. We meet Mowgli (Neel Sethi) mid-gallop, trying to run with his wolf pack family and chased by a creature we are led to assume is a predator—foreshadowing several later, unquestionably more hostile pursuits. Mowgli’s un-wolf-like strategy includes bounding off of branches and swooping from vines. Favreau noticeably displays his pedigree as a bankable, big-budget action director, whose helming of this project likely is due to his success with two of the Iron Man films and the kids’ actioner Zathura: A Space Adventure. Zooming through the jungle with Mowgli has great aesthetic kinship with Iron Man in flight. And, even more derivatively, the shaky-cam tracking shots that follow the Lost Boy hero seem cribbed from the Daniel Craig-James Bond series and its recurring scenes of super-spy parkour. All of these entertainments Kipling himself might have admired, with his enthusiasm for boyish adventure, but its fun feels as disposable and obligatory as every other 3-D summer blockbuster jolt-fest.
Much more interesting and revisionary is Favreau’s handling of Shere Khan, voiced by Idris Elba. The Jungle Book (1967) was the final cartoon feature overseen by Walt himself, and its adaptation from Kipling was tumultuous, resulting in the firing of its original screenwriter and composer who Disney thought were too faithful to Kipling’s dark vision. Favreau and company, to their credit, inject more menace into their story, even beginning the film with a scenario from Kipling’s story “How Fear Came,” in which predatory animals declare a truce during a season of drought. Shere Khan is the lone critic of this truce, proclaiming the opportunity for ridding themselves of the refugee man-cub. The 1967 version of Shere Khan was a killing machine with George Sanders’s devilishly posh accent, springing his claws and coolly slinking. The new Khan via Elba is more wrathful—badly scarred and sporting a milky-blue dead eye. His accent is noticeably hard-bitten, even proletarian, and his claim to Mowgli’s blood comes not from his lawlessness, as it does in Kipling’s originals, but from his insistence that a living man in their forest will inevitably lead to fiery death. Men kill animals indiscriminately, Shere Khan argues, and smart communities will exterminate a threat before it matures. With (perhaps) unintentional echoes of current US political discourse, the tiger promotes nativism, isolationism, and species-ism. He sounds alarmist, but he is not wrong—men do bring the “red flower” and its consequences—and the wolves are tempted by his logic. Giving plausible attractiveness to the orations of a nativist demagogue is one of the boldest elements of this—or any other—Disney film.
If only the entire film were this consistently surprising. Much of Favreau’s version is less a remake than a re-translation, channeling many of the best-remembered bits from the original cartoon through state-of-the-art, whiz-bang technologies that replace stilted cel-based animation. At the same time that the 2016 version gussies up the story technically, it strips back the relationships, narrative, and characterization to a bare minimum, leaving several of the characters, such as Mowgli’s wolf parents Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), merely sketches. Many iconic moments from 1967 return, as Bagheera the Panther (Ben Kingsley), and Mowgli’s Falstaffian partner/friend/exploiter Baloo the Bear (Bill Murray) echo their earlier incarnations. Mowgli’s water-ride on Baloo’s belly, complete with a squirt in the face is recreated in live action. Ditto the hypnotism by Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the crashing temple of King Louie (Christopher Walken), and the lope-a-dope swings through jungle vines. Even a few of the unforgettable songs return with celebrity voice actors giving distinctive renditions: Murray on “Bear Necessities,” Walken doing “I Wan’na Be Like You,” and, over the closing credits, Johansson with a sultry “Trust in Me.” These elements are undeniably drenched in Disneyfied nostalgia, but they mostly succeed, like the amusements of a well-rehearsed cover band rather than just displays of preening celebrity self-indulgence.
Thankfully, the film is almost devoid of the pop culture references “for the parents” that became de rigueur after Robin Williams’s Genie in Aladdin (1992) manifested his signature style of manic mugging. Having Baloo talk about Ghostbusters or Bagheera tell us that he is “no Gandhi” are indulgences mercifully avoided in Favreau’s movie. The celebrity voices themselves do, of course, function with this multi-sectional appeal, inviting curiosity, for instance, about the ways Baloo seems “Murray-esque.” The plummy baritone of Phil Harris as Baloo in the 1967 version, whose lasting fame was secured with several other key voice roles in Disney animation, including O’Malley in The Aristocats (1970) and Little John in Robin Hood (1974), would seem irreplaceable. The Jungle Book (1994), Disney’s all-but-forgotten first attempt at a live action version, skirted the problem altogether by eliminating talking animals. By contrast, The Jungle Book (2016) never quite allows the film-literate viewer to shake the awareness of the actor behind the animal. When Mowgli first peers into the darkness of Louie’s temple fortress, the unmistakable voice of Christopher Walken croaks from the shadows, and Walken’s own jowly enunciation matches his rendering as a gigantic ape. This absurdity combines with one of the most blatant movie homages, as Louie tilts his head into the light while eating a papaya, and, in Walken’s unique timbre, evokes Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.
The nod to Coppola plays mostly as a witty in-joke for film buffs, but it resonates well with the broadest themes of imperialism that Apocalypse Now inherited from its source text, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Conrad and Kipling were near contemporaries, and though the former is far more ambiguous about the value of colonial dominance, they shared a fascination with the uncharted reaches of Empire. Kipling’s Jungle Books stories are a little less overt in their “hurrahing” for Britannica than some of his other works, such as his infamous poem “The White Man’s Burden,” which bemoans the onerous task of British largesse toward colonial races that are “half-devil, half-child.” But the imperialist undercurrent persists. In what remains my absolute favorite adaptation of Kipling’s stories, Chuck Jones’s animated short Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (1975), Orson Welles’s rich voiceover guides viewers through an exciting tale of a mongoose protecting a British family from vicious snakes in the garden of a colonial cantonment. The twangy sitar-themed score and rampant exoticism match Kipling’s own obvious desire to impress homebody readers with the sheer weirdness of other lands under British protection. And the valiant mongoose who saves the magistrate’s family from evil cobras and their children amounts to a celebration of the native collaborator who quells an anticolonial revolution.
Disney and Favreau shed most of the problematic dimension of Mowgli’s paternalism over the animal races in a final message of togetherness and community rather than a pax humana achieved through the violent threat of fire—a message hard to escape in Kipling’s stories or Chuck Jones’s cartoon Mowgli’s Brothers (1976). And yet, the message of “togetherness” at the end of The Jungle Book (2016) seems somehow anemic compared with the ritual intoning of the “Law of the Jungle” so vital to Kipling’s tales and Orson Welles’s sonorous recitations: “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” In the latest Disney take, this idea is also announced, and the narrative makes some attempt to realize its meaning, but it is more perfunctory than essential—barely necessary, indeed.
Charles Andrews is Associate Professor of English at Whitworth University.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “[Frankenstein] and a Critique of Imperialism.” In Frankenstein: Norton Critical Edition, J. Paul Hunter, ed. New York: Norton, 1996: 262–270.
Woolf, Virginia. The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume Three: 1919–1924. Andrew McNeillie, ed. San Diego: HBJ, 1988.