Examining Hollywood Remakes: Jungle Book

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The novel “Jungle Book” was written by Rudyard Kipling (Author of Gunga Din and The Man Who Would Be King) in 1894. It was a series of short stories using anthropomorphic animals to tell tales reflecting the conflict between man and nature. Three of the stories featured Mowgli, a boy raised in the jungle by animals (Mowgli was partly the inspiration for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan) and is torn between his two worlds. There have been several film interpretations of this story, with a new one coming out this week. The two most famous are the first adaptation from 1942, and the popular animated Disney musical version from 1967. (We’ll skip the 1994 version with Jason Scott Lee as Mowgli because it’s unmemorable and bland.)

01 JungleBook 1942

The live-action 1942 version of Jungle Book was made by the Hungarian born Korda Brothers (Zoltan Korda directed and Alexander Korda produced) and starred Sabu Dastagir (Who played Aladdin in The Thief of Bagdad). Billed only as ‘Sabu’, he was introduced to the world of film at age 13 by a documentary film crew in Mysore, India, while he was working as an Elephant Whisperer for a local Maharajah and was whisked off to Hollywood for the lead in the film Elephant Boy (1937). He was a good choice for the role of Mowgli the man-cub.

The plot of the 1942 version: An attack by Shere Khan, the tiger leads to the death of a man and his child is adopted by wolves in the jungle. The boy, who is named Mowgli by the animals, grows to be a wild, feral youth. Mowgli is captured by the humans. He is adopted by a woman who turns out to be his mother Messua, though she doesn’t recognize him. He is educated and learns the ways of men. Mowgli becomes friendly with young Mahala, daughter of Buldeo. Buldeo fears that Mowgli is dangerous. When Mowgli takes Mahala to explore the jungle, they discover an old, ruined palace, containing vast wealth. Mahala takes one a as a memento. When Buldeo sees the coin, he tries to get Mowgli to tell him where the treasure is, but Mowgli refuses.

Mowgli fights and kills Shere Khan, with some help from Kaa the snake. Buldeo arrives and threatens Mowgli with a gun, but he’s attacked by Mowgli’s friend Bagheera, the panther. Buldeo becomes convinced that Mowgli is shape-shifter and tells the villagers that Mowgli is a witch. Mowgli is locked up and is due to be burned alive, but his mother’s helps him escape. However, she is caught and sentenced to burn in his place.

Mowgli, escaping to the jungle, is followed by the greedy Buldeo and two friends, a priest and a barber, to the lost city. They find the treasure but they all turn on each other. Mowgli, who was trailing and observing the men, tells Bagheera the panther to chase Buldeo– the sole survivor of the three—out the jungle, and Buldeo flees without his treasure. Buldeo wants revenge and starts a forest fire but the wind turns and the blaze threatens Buldeo’s village. The villagers flee, but Mowgli’s mother is trapped. Mowgli summons elephants to the village and breaks open the building, escaping to the river with his mother and other villagers. He is invited to come with them and start a new life in a city, but Mowgli decides he can’t leave the jungle.

The 1942 version is a bit episodic and somewhat disconnected, since it was based on three of the Kipling short stories. The Disney animated version is a bit more linear, probably because it had the 1942 film to use as a blueprint. The basic spine of the storyline follows the threat of the human-hating Shere Khan and the other animals attempts to get Mowgli out of the jungle before Shere Khan gets to him. The Disney version also invented King Louie, king of the monkeys, who wants to learn the secret of fire.

 The plot of the 1967 version: Mowgli is found as a baby in a basket in the jungles of India by Bagheera the panther, who takes him to the wolf tribe, and they decide to raise him. Mowgli becomes well acquainted with jungle life. Cut to 10 years later, the wolf tribe learns that Shere Khan the tiger has returned to the jungle, so they realize that Mowgli needs to be taken to the “Man-Village” for his own safety. Bagheera offers to take him there but Mowgli wants to stay in the jungle. He and Bagheera start their trip and have an encounter with the snake Kaa, and then Mowgli tries to join the elephant patrol, headed by Colonel Hathi. Bagheera has an argument with Mowgli, so the panther decides to leave Mowgli to fend for himself. Mowgli then meets the fun-loving, good-natured bear Baloo, who offers to look after Mowgli.

Monkeys snatch Mowgli and take him to their leader, King Louie the orangutan. King Louie wants Mowgli to make fire for him, like other humans do, but since he was not raised by humans, Mowgli doesn’t know how to make fire. Bagheera and Baloo rescue him. Bagheera convinces Baloo that the jungle will never be safe for Mowgli as long as Shere Khan is around. Baloo reluctantly agrees, and explains to Mowgli that the “man-village” is safer for him, but Mowgli sees this as a betrayal and runs away in a huff. Baloo sets off in search for him, while Bagheera recruits Hathi and his elephant patrol to find him. Shere Khan is eavesdropping on them and is now determined to hunt and kill Mowgli.

Mowgli encounters Kaa again but thanks to the unwitting intervention of Shere Khan himself, Mowgli escapes. Mowgli meets a group of friendly vultures who surprisingly accept Mowgli as a fellow outcast. Shere Khan arrives, scaring off the vultures and confronting Mowgli. Baloo arrives to save Mowgli, but is injured. Lightning strikes a nearby tree and starts a fire, while the vultures distract Shere Khan, allowing Mowgli to gather flaming branches and tie them to Shere Khan’s tail. The tiger is terrified of fire and runs off in total panic. Bagheera and Baloo take Mowgli to the “man-village”, but Mowgli is reluctant to go until he spots a pretty young girl from the “man village” who is coming to the river to fetch some water. Mowgli is immediately smitten by the sight of her and follows her into the “man-village”. After Mowgli chooses to stay there, Baloo and Bagheera head home, content that Mowgli is safe among his own kind.

The storyline of the animated version stays focused on Shere Khan as the main villain, and utilizes some fun allies for Mowgli like the vultures and Baloo the bear. The vibrant animation keeps things more lively and visually interesting than the live-action version, which uses either trained animals or fake ones (like the phony snake Kaa.)  The voice actors are perfect in the Disney film, using big names of the day like Sabastian Cabot, Louis Prima and Sterling Holloway, but the standouts are George Sanders as the villainous Shere  Khan, and Phil Harris as the happy-go-lucky bear Baloo. The cast of the original film is fine, and Sabu is well cast as Mowgli but overall, they don’t come across as being as entertaining, fun and likable as their Disney counterparts.

An interesting difference between the two films is that the endings are opposite. In the 1942 version, Mowgli goes back-and-forth between his two worlds and ultimately decides to stay in the jungle. In the Disney version, Mowgli seems firmly committed to staying in the jungle but ultimately chooses to remain with the humans once he sees his first human girl.

So which is better? The Disney version takes the prize here. Aside from the more consistent plot and great voice actors, the animated version has some wonderful, catchy songs, most notably “the Bear Necessities”, which was nominated for Best Song at the Oscars. (It lost to another song about animals, “Talk to the Animals” from Dr. Doolittle).

So that’s all for this week’s look at cinematic remakes. We’ll be back next week to dissect another remade movie. Until then, please feel free to look up our previous articles Examining Hollywood Remakes.