Welcome to Apples and Oranges! This is an occasional feature where I compare two things, related or not. Today we’re looking at the 1967 and 2016 versions of Disney’s The Jungle Book. In the interest of doing a really comprehensive comparison, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.
After seeing the 2016 version in theaters last weekend (and loving it) I couldn’t help but compare the two versions and mull over what the remake did better, worse, or just plain differently. The 1967 version was a huge part of my childhood; I had a massive crush on Mowgli (first saw it when I was six, I think), and was so inspired by his clambering around the jungle with only his animal friends that I spent hours in my backyard, climbing trees and doing gymnastics. I even had a stuffed Bagheera.
So when the trailer came out last year, showing little Neel Sethi running through the steaming Indian jungles as an orchestral refrain of ‘The Bare Necessities’ swells in the background, I was BEYOND excited. Cynics might believe Disney is just cashing in on nostalgia with all these remakes, but honestly, The Jungle Book has been the best of them, with the most heart.
Mowgli of the 1967 version was depicted with dark skin and hair, and his voice provided by Wolfgang Reitherman’s son Bruce. Walt Disney himself was personally involved with much of the movie’s production, even firing the original director and rewriting much of the story to make it more family-friendly. In fact, since he would die before its release, it was the last movie he was personally involved with. Mowgli is the most famous Indian male character in the Western world, so it seems pretty forward-thinking of Disney to headline a movie with a child of Color in 1960s America.
In a move that was refreshingly sensible, for the 2016 version Disney cast a child of Indian descent. There’s very little info on Sethi himself on the Wikipedia page, probably to protect him against the horrors of international super-stardom. His few moments in the trailer really didn’t do him justice. He’s a highly charismatic boy, and has the easily physicality one would expect in a child raised by wolves. He’s spry as he travels through the treetops, but his stunts are never unbelievable. Personality wise he’s a winner, too. One needn’t look far in movies for examples of films all but ruined by annoyingly twee child actors – Yes, I’m talking about The Mummy Returns. I got through 5 minutes of it, and at minute 6 the kid showed up and I couldn’t deal.
The harsh realities of being human in a rough-edged world are shown, as Mowgli begins the movie with several noticable scars and only accumulates more as the movie goes on. At one point the poor kid is covered with bee stings.
(A deeply cynical part of me wonders if some Disney execs were worried about casting a child of Color in a huge tentpole summer film, then calculated their overseas gross sales and all high-fived each other for twenty minutes while shouting ‘YAY DIVERSITY.’ But I digress!)
An interesting fact on the 1967 version’s IMDB trivia page whose provenance I can’t trace has Disney replacing famous jazz musician Louis Armstrong with Louis Prima. Supposedly Disney feared the racist implications of having a Black man play an orang-utang. Now maybe that’s not true. Maybe that’s somebody’s apologist/revisionist attempt to make Disney less of a racist weirdo than he was said to be. I don’t know. I would like to believe it, though, if only to cast Walt himself in a a slightly less-insane and less-prejudiced light.
I really can’t rave enough about the casting for both versions. MAN! The casting was just so, so perfect.
Idris Elba takes on the voice of Shere Khan, a role made famous by respected actor George Saunders. Saunders’s aristocratic accent and physical mannerisms informed much of Shere Khan’s design, and The Jungle Book was one of the first animated movies that respected, award-winning actors performed in. The animated Shere Khan frightened me because he never sang in the movie, and because through most of his appearances, he was stately and arrogant, as if the other animals were beneath him. It makes his fearsome charge at the end of the movie all the more frightening as his facade of good manners and elegance falls away. Elba utilizes a different kind of duality – most of the time he snarls and growls, but in a scene showing Shere Khan menacing Raksha’s pups, Elba’s voice becomes a dangerous purr, just as you would expect from a tiger.
Every one of the casting choices was perfect. Scarlett Johanssen was especially an inspired gamble that paid off. It makes perfect sense that a giant python’s voice would be pleasant and disarming– that way, she can get right up close, winding up prey and lulling it to sleep. I also liked the duality between the two female characters – Raksha on one side, Kaa on the other. I especially liked the slow build in Kaa’s introduction, where you hear her but don’t see her, until you realize the enormity of her body.
Christopher Walken is incredibly menacing as King Louie, a Gigantopithecus rather than an Orang-Utang. Walken’s tiny, piercing blue eyes glare out of a weird tire-shaped head, and they do it from about ten feet off the ground. Louie is less swinging ape than mini-Kong, and he hunts for Mowgli among his ruins, ultimately destroying them.
I’ve never read the original Kipling stories. The 1967 version is fairly straightforward – Bagheera takes Mowgli from the wolves because Shere Khan is back in town and the jungle is no longer safe; the village is the destination; adventures and mishaps are had along the way. I remembered a little girl ultimately tempting Mowgli to join the village, and wondered how they would handle that in 2016. Apparently the little girl was an invention of the 1967 filmmakers, so she didn’t appear in the movie – I thought that was an all right choice, although it would have been nice to see Mowgli interact with other people a bit. Other changes, like Kaa being a villain (Kaa is Mowgli’s friend in the book) were kept. Mowgli’s mother Raksha, played by Lupita Nyong’o is considerably beefed up as she becomes pack leader and takes a stand against Shere Khan, and gives a beautiful, fierce performance as his mother.
My goodness, this world. It is beautiful. Every shining leaf, every dusty rock, every glistening flower – it is incredible what’s possible these days. I had a moment very similar to the one I had in Lord of the Rings, when I first saw what was possible with modern effects. They’ve created a real world.
Everything had weight, had solidity. The elephants first appear marching regally through the jungle with moonlight gilding their heads, sweeping their trunks and tusks back and forth, and you can feel the weight of their movement as they pass. Trees shake when Mowgli or other animals land on them, buffaloes tumble heavily down thick, slippery mud in a monsoon, and bodies crash together with sickening thuds when animals fight.
The original being an animated musical, it had a lot more music than this version. Honestly, the only weak part of the 2016 film was King Louie’s song, only because the scene is set up to be frightening, but the song is so jazzy and goofy that it slows things down. Louie in the cartoon was disarming, he was trying to convince Mowgli into joining him; Louie of 2016 is menacing from the get-go. I would have been fine with the song remaining in the credits, but in the film itself it isn’t necessary.
The music of the 2016 film otherwise is quite wonderful. There’s the aforementioned orchestral refrain of Bare Necessities that plays as Mowgli runs through the Jungle, and there’s Bill Murray’s rendition of same as boy and bear float down the river without a care in the world. That song works, because it lulls the viewer into a sense of complacency, just in time for a troupe of monkeys to kidnap Mowgli on Louie’s orders.
Scarlett gets to do a sultry update on Kaa’s ‘Trust In Me’ song, but it only appears over the credits.
This movie had all the heart I hoped it would. It sent me to a simple, joyful place that I hadn’t been in some while and would dearly love to visit more often.
After the film, there’s a callback to the old Disney movies’ framing device involving actual storybooks. Back in the day, the movie would open on a book, the book’s cover would open, story begins, the book closes when the story’s over. Now, the book closes only at the end of the movie– but it’s a pop-up book. Refrains of the songs play over credits, and the characters jump and play around in their respective environments. There’s even a joke involving Shere Khan and a giant jerboa. It was a wonderful, perfect touch to the movie’s end.
A hundred billion years ago, when I was a child, I remember watching the animated version of The Jungle Book and wondering if they would make a new one, with better animation, or a live-action version with puppets. I didn’t think the old version was bad, I just wanted my own, new version to love. Newer isn’t always better… except when it is.
Even though I love the original version, I have room to love the 2016 version, too. I can’t recommend it highly enough for fans of action and adventure. It might be too intense for really small children, in which case the original animated version is probably better.
*I did not discuss the 1994 version starring Jason Scott Lee because I haven’t seen it in years and I sort of forgot it existed anyway. It does, however, star a very young Lena Headey, best known now as Queen Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones, and Jason Scott Lee spends most of it in a loincloth.