"We be of one blood, you and I!"
Ah, "The Jungle Book". Based off the Rudyard Kipling novel of the same name, the film currently hitting theaters is far from the only cinematic adaptation. Much like "Alice in Wonderland", "Cinderella", or "Peter Pan", most all of us immediately think of the animated Disney version. It has probably the least to do with its source material than any other, but by the bull that bought me, does it entertain! I love the book. And I love the 1967 movie, directed by Woolie Reitherman. And as it crept to a release, I awaited with hot anticipation. And what did I think of it?
Wonderful! Lots of homages to the books and the cartoon! Amazing cast! Gorgeous effects! Far and away the best live action adaptation of a Disney animated feature!
But I want to compare the many characters to their book versions, the cartoon versions, and the Favreau versions.
Oh, and, uh, spoilers ahead.
The book: Mowgli (rhymes with "Now glee"), or "Little Frog" was a babe in the woods, orphaned after Shere Khan killed his family. The Man-cub crawls fearlessly to the wolf's cave and makes himself comfortable, setting Mowgli's established character trait of being relatively fearless, almost to the point of recklessness. The boy is extremely smart, and often cleverly thinks of ways to overcome bigger, stronger, nastier creatures of the jungle. He is confident, but rarely brash, learning of the dangers of the jungle early on and rarely, if ever, is he intimidated. Really, Mowgli's one flaw is his inability to keep his mouth shut in times of tact or social grace, which has led him astray, from being kidnapped by monkeys to vexing a prominent hunter in the village.
The cartoon: Mowgli (Pronounced "Moe-gli") is a brat, almost completely. Instead of a tragic backstory involving Shere Khan killing his parents, he is simply found in a broken reed boat by Bagheera. Played by the director's son, Bruce Reitherman, Mowgli is equally fearless, though maybe a third as smart. Despite spending ten years in the jungle, he treats every creature and danger like they're toys to be played with. Like Mowgli in the novel, he's more partial to a life of hedonism and laziness, but here, he takes no precautions to protect himself, let alone in advance. He whines incessantly, protesting the journey to the Man-Village to Bagheera, convinced he'd rather stay in the Jungle. The problem is Mowgli is almost completely unable to protect himself unless Bagheera, Baloo, the vultures, or even Shere Khan (unwittingly) is saving him from certain death! He is little more than a catalyst, or a MacGuffin, not unlike Aurora in 1959's "Sleeping Beauty". Though to give him credit, he does have a personality, even if it's a bratty one. In all, he's my least favorite character of the movie, though I can't bring myself to say that I hate him.
The 2016 movie: Neel Sethi (in his breakout role) is a vast improvement on Bruce Reitherman's chops from 1967. Where Reitherman was whiny and needlessly stubborn, Sethi nails the nuances of being Mowgli: stubborn, but not stupid. Bold, but not reckless. Emotional, but not temperamental. At last, Mowgli has survival skills, he's clever at inventing simple inventions to make things easier (even though it's heavily frowned upon by Akela for not being lupine), he puts other's feelings before his own...in short, he's not nearly as arrogant as he is in the novel, and not nearly as bratty as the cartoon. Nailed it, kid!
Oh, and need I mention that he did it all without a single real animal with him? Give this kid an Oscar!
The book: The "sleepy, old, serious brown bear" is the teacher of the law of the jungle to the pups of the Seeonee wolf pack. He's a strict disciplinarian, believing in "spare the paw and spoil the Man-cub". He loves Mowgli fiercely and is determined to see him grow up smart and strong.
The cartoon: When Bill Peet, the original writer, drafted the script, Baloo evolved into a bear who wasn't serious, old, or brown. He saw the relationship between Mowgli and Baloo was the key to unlocking the potential heart of the movie, and by focusing on that, created one of the best aspects of the movie.
Baloo is more interested in the sensual pleasures of life: food, music, dancing, and scratching. His character arc is minimal, but he does grow to care for Mowgli, causing him to stress and worry over someone besides himself for once. It's what sells the film.
The 2016 movie: Bill Murray has been known to play characters just slightly off-kilter, and for a while, he's been relatively hidden from the mainstream circuit, favoring mostly independent projects. Now, in a Disney film, Murray is back in true form.
Bill's Baloo is still a lackadaisical ne'er-do-well, but here he becomes the first animal to encourage Mowgli's penchant for building inventions. He even offers to escort Mowgli to the Man-Village should he decide to do so. But it's his sly nature and silver tongue that make him a bit of a con artist, making him more like his "TaleSpin" counterpart than either "Jungle Book" version. Especially since he uses said witty tongue to con monkeys and Man-Cubs into getting him food. Even the inevitable scene where Bagheera spells out the danger Mowgli's in feels less forced and more natural thanks to Bill's acting and the great script.
The book: "cunning as Tabaqui [the jackal], as bold as the wild buffalo, and as Reckless as the wounded elephant". These are the words Kipling used to describe Bagheera. When Baloo's sole vote fails to keep Mowgli in the wolf pack, Bagheera steps in to offer up a bull for Shere Khan in exchange for the boy. The pack agrees, but even this sizeable offer causes Shere Khan to roar and whine and pout.
While Baloo disciplines Mowgli on a regular basis, Bagheera often spoils Mowgli and is his maternal guardian, often chastising Baloo for being too hard on the boy. But Bagheera knows hardships: he reveals to Mowgli that he was once a captive pet of a Maharajah, and escaped.
The cartoon: Bagheera balances out Baloo in the novel with Baloo being the strict one and Bagheera being the lax one. They roles are switched in the animated film, with Bagheera responsible and strict in his ways of dealing with Mowgli.
Though he claimed he should've walked away and abandon Mowgli when he first found him, he eventually grows to care deeply for the Man-cub. Due to his personality opposite fun-loving Baloo, this has led him to being one of the least popular characters in the movie, even though he has the most screentime next to Mowgli.
The 2016 movie: Bagheera adheres more to the cartoon version as the stuffy, stern panther who will do anything to keep Mowgli safe. While in the cartoon, he's more frustrated and put-upon, Ben Kingsley's portrayal adds a depth of compassion. Bagheera, like in the novels, loves Mowgli. He fights Shere Khan not once, but TWICE to keep Mowgli safe, adding heart-pounding tension. And in the moments where he has to be Mr. party-pooper, he doesn't talk down to Mowgli or condescend: even when Mowgli's inventions anger him, he can't help but respect the results they bring and how they display Mowgli's resourcefulness.
The wolf pack
The book: The Seeonee wolf pack is Mowgli's family, and he spends a substantial amount of time being with them. His father is never named, and his mother, Raksha ("The Demon") stands up to Shere Khan with hardcore intensity when he comes to claim the toddler who wandered into their cave.
Akela, the leader, is gentle, kind, and wise. His diplomatic ways quell needless bickering in the pack.
Mowgli has had several brothers and sisters, but none nearly as loyal to him as Grey Brother. While the rest of Mowgli's brethren get sweet-talked by Shere Khan into turning against the Man-cub, Grey Brother stands nobly by Mowgli. When Akela is deemed too old by the pack, they prepare to kill him, but Mowgli stops the coup, and leaves the Seeonee wolf pack with both Akela and Grey Brother at his side. They even help Mowgli kill Shere Khan by herding bulls into a ravine to trample the tiger. Now THAT'S loyalty.
The cartoon: the wolves get shafted so bad here it's hardly funny. For one, while the mother wolf is never addressed by name, the father wolf is named "Rama", who was a bull who trampled Shere Khan in the book. Mother wolf gets zero lines and Rama only four.
Akela, does, however, carry a sense of aged dignity, in all seven lines he delivers. But he never even stands up from his sitting position.
Sadly, they're all ditched about five minutes into the movie, robbing us of any chance getting to know more about them better.
The 2016 movie: While we never see Mowgli's wolf father, it's for the better. It would have been too many cooks spoiling the broth.
Raksha, played expertly by Lupita Nyong'o, is full of maternal love and like her novel counterpart, is fiercely protective of Mowgli. I was immensely proud to see her ascend to wolf pack leader at the end.
Speaking of, Akela, played Giancarlo Edposito, was wonderful. Like the other incarnations of the character, Akela is patient and strong, noble and courageous, wise and empathetic. It's compelling to watch him in all the scenes with him and Shere Khan, these two mighty beasts who bear a modicum of respect...almost, anyway. The violent usurpation Shere Khan enacts by killing Akela is only here in this movie, which was a fascinating turn of events and a horrifying one.
A pleasant addition is an adorable wolf pup named simply Grey, clearly the book's Grey Brother, who looks up to Mowgli like a role model. He's plenty precocious without being cloying. The other pups are there, and Shere Khan does, in fact, have an excellent scene where he uses an elaborate metaphor to spell out why they should turn against Mowgli. It's chilling to watch, to say the least.
The book: At 150 years old, Kaa is one of the most revered creatures of the jungle. Half-deaf, half-blind, and "a fair length" to boot, he is rarely bothered by others, and is only recruited because Baloo and Bagheera can't fight the monkeys without him (He eats their young frequently). His appearance turns the tide in the battle, and he performs a seductive dance that hypnotizes the monkeys into walking right into his gaping maw.
In later chapters, Kaa becomes a close companion to the boy, even going so far as to helping save their part of the jungle from the attacks of the Red Dogs.
The cartoon: Kaa, now a villain, sees Mowgli not as a friend, but as a meal. As though to illustrate just how dangerous the jungle can be. In fact, he could be a bigger threat than Shere Khan, given that he can sedate his meal with little to no effort. Unfortunately, the power has gone to his head, and he prefers to play with his food before eating it, resulting in him losing Mowgli...twice.
Sterling Holloway, the voice of the Cheshire Cat and Winnie the Pooh, hisses with glee in a way that feels unnerving, but goofy. He'll always be the definitive Kaa to me...as long as I remember to always turn on Safesearch when Googling him.
The 2016 movie: Scarlet Johansson takes on the python, which had many scratching their heads in confusion. Turns out, Favreau wanted to help balance out the gender roles in the film, and to quite the effect. Johansson's voice is profoundly hypnotic, and though I do miss Holloway's goofiness, this iteration isn't bad.
Here, Kaa tells Mowgli/the audience the Man-cub's origins, and why Shere Khan wants him dead so badly. It's a curious choice to make but incorporates her hypnotic ability well. This also makes her a hungry predator and not an ally, and sadly, her screentime ends after only one scene, with little to no bearing on the plot. Especially since we don't know what's become of her.
Initially, it's hard to tell of her intentions, seeing as, unlike Holloway's Kaa, her motives are less transparent. She offers him protection, and all the while Mowgli and the audience is watching the flashback unfold, no one notices that Mowgli's life is now to utter danger, as her coils ensnare the boy.
The book: While Shere Khan claims he owns the jungle, Hathi unquestionably rules despite rarely ever saying a word. A wise old elephant, Hathi just ambles along, doing his own thing, bothering no one and few bothering him: Hathi's trait is patience. His only family is his two sons.
The most coverage Hathi gets in the book is in the chapter "How Fear Came" from "The Second Jungle Book". He exposits the lore of the jungle and how it came to be, why Shere Khan can kill man one night a year, and how Shame and Fear began. Adding a layer of mythos gives the jungle its own depth.
The cartoon: Call "Colonel" Hathi anything, but dignified isn't one of them. A blustery British war elephant, Hathi boasts and brags incessantly about his days serving the Maharajah 5th pachyderm brigade. Ironically forgetful, Hathi often exhausts his troops in their cross-country matches for seemingly no true purpose. He was a funny character, but his two scenes rarely amounted to much other than showing he was pretty misogynistic toward his wife, and arguably not a very good military officer.
The 2016 movie: The elephants don't get any dialogue in the movie. Hathi isn't even addressed by name, so we don't even know which one he is. Like in the book, they are massive creatures who command respect. As in the chapter "How Fear Came", Bagheera explains how elephants are regarded as creators of the jungle, and like Buckbeak from "Harry Potter", are easily offended. It's fine by me to see these creatures get such weight and gravitas, unlike the sputtering British Colonel.
The book: Known as the "Bandar-log", the monkey people are total social outcasts. The monkeys see themselves as a great society, with accomplishments far above and beyond the rest of the jungle people. Needless to say, their short attention spans, excitable nature, and fierce tempers result in them fighting each other long before anything is achieved. Baloo and the rest of the jungle people look upon them with pure disdain, seeing as they are just mostly annoying.
But the Bandar-log are lawless, leaderless, irrational, and very dangerous. They mock or insult the jungle people on whims, but usually move on to something more interesting not long later. They kidnap Mowgli in "Kaa's Hunting" in an effort to get him to teach them how to make shelter. Even when they have long since lost interest in that effort, they still keep the Man-cub because they had plans for him, even if they had no idea what those plans would entail. But never underestimate them: Baloo and Bagheera put up a heck of a fight, but hordes of sharp-toothed, agile monkeys with volatile tempers made victory near-impossible...until a certain snake slithers in.
The cartoon: With hairstyles and slang reminiscent of the sixties, the monkeys are decidedly less temperamental and much more organized as they harass Baloo to kidnap Mowgli.
As I stated, the monkeys have no leader in the book, so instead of Mowgli having to converse with a bunch of various monkeys, they're given the orangutan King Louie, played by jazz musician Louis Prima. He was a popular character even though he was only kidnapping Mowgli just to get the secret of fire under the threat of...I dunno, music?
It should be noted that, yes, fire was a big part of the book, especially in the chapter "Mowgli's Brothers". But it's called the "red flower" because animals fear it so much they dare not speak of it by its true name. The monkeys in the book don't even think about fire, and even though it's the reason why Louie even wants him in the movie, they seem to be too busy making music than to worry about climbing the evolutionary ladder.
The 2016 movie: The monkeys are decidedly less fearsome than the ones from the novel, but more intimidating than the animated ones. Part of that comes from the fact they don't talk.
Louie, played to perfection by Christopher Walken, is a massive primate hidden deep within the temple. Favreau heeded realism and made Louie a gigantopithicus: a prehistoric version of the ape since orangutans only inhabit the island of Borneo. The Gigantopithicus is an extinct ancestor of the orangutan that once lived on the Indian subcontinent.
Like a crime boss, Louie is simultaneously intense and playful, who tries to appeal to Mowgli with patience, friendly gestures, and even a song, but the moment Mowgli becomes defiant does the ape become cross and eventually irate, making King Kong look like a chimp. I love the fact that his monkeys crawl all over him like fleas, and that it looks as though he hadn't left his spot in years.
And by the way, a cow bell? Well played, Favreau. Well played.
The book: "Shere Khan" (AKA "Lord Tiger") is actually his own nickname. Yeah. His real name is "Lungri", meaning "Lame one", due to his deformed paw, causing him to limp.
Proud, arrogant, and blustery, Shere Khan has delusions of grandeur, often running around, bellowing and roaring in rage like a perpetually whiny toddler. His biggest upset is losing Mowgli to the wolf pack, and soon plots to usurp the leader role when Akela is too old, all the while winning the confidence of several of Mowgli's wolf brothers. Mowgli defeats him by thrusting a flaming branch in his face, but he is not killed until the chapter "Tiger! Tiger!", where Mowgli, Grey Brother, and Akela herd a stampede of cattle to trample the striped cat to death. He is then skinned, and his hide is placed upon council rock.
The cartoon: I have always loved Shere Khan in the animated version. He embodies "Speak softly and carry a big stick" by calmly and coolly issuing threats while nonchalantly brandishing his claws. He never needed to fully exert his strength since all the jungle feared him. He bears no disability, further intensifying his threat level. George Sanders and his haughty accent to sell his condescension with expert ease.
He doesn't seem to be responsible for killing Mowgli's parents, but the subtext of fearing guns and fire is prominent enough to give him proper motive.
The 2016 movie: Idris Elba combines the impatience and rage of the book version with the clever wit and intensity of the cartoon. Shere Khan is larger than life, and strikes at the most opportune moments. Like the book, he is disabled, but he's merely burned and blind in one eye, thanks to Mowgli's father from years ago.
The novel: Only in the third chapter, "Tiger! Tiger!" Does Mowgli toy with the notion of spending time with his own species. A woman named Messua adopts him, believing he may be her long lost son. At first, things seem fine, but go downhill quickly.
Concepts like currency and the Caste system are far above Mowgli's head, much to the village's shock. But when a hunter named Buldeo brags about the mysticism and superstitious tales of the jungle, Mowgli calls him out on it, in front of the townspeople, raising Buldeo's ire. When Shere Khan is killed, Buldeo boasts about taking credit and the government-instilled bounty, only for Mowgli to doc Akela on him. Buldeo convinces the village that Mowgli is a sorcerer, and cast him out, much to Mowgli's relief/amusement.
In the Second Jungle Book, Mowgli hears of Messua and her husband getting imprisoned for harboring a sorcerer. The Man-cub frees them, and has Hathi and his fellow elephants trample the village to the ground. From all of this, Mowgli's view of humans becomes apparent that he finds their laws and customs silly and irrational, preferring the close-knit, open attitude of the Seeonee wolf pack.
The cartoon: The only human Mowgli encounters is a young girl who is fetching water from a spring. She hums about domestic life, and is charmed by the sudden appearance of a half-naked feral boy gawking at her from within the jungle. It's not until the sequel (the terrible, terrible sequel) where she not only has dialogue, but is given the name Shanti.
The 2016 movie: Much like the elephants, the humans are downplayed severely, and bereft of dialogue. The only human we see is Mowgli's father, only in flashback.
Best Original Characters
The Book: Kipling's book features a vast array of animals in the jungle various characteristics, from Chil the kite to Ikki the porcupine, Buldeo the hunter to Mao the peacock. But for me, my favorite character, and severe missed opportunity, was Tabaqui the jackal.
For the uninitiated Disney fans, imagine Lefou from "Beauty and the Beast" mixed with Randall from "Monsters, Inc.". A scavenger and a lowly creature, Tabaqui, the dish-licker, skulks around for scraps and is more or less Shere Khan's lackey. He poses little threat unless he contracts rabies, Kipling notes, then everyone steers clear of him. But be has comic potential, so points go to him.
The Cartoon: Instead of Chil the Kite, we are given four vultures. Flaps, Dizzy, Ziggy, and Buzzy all have thick Liverpool accents to parody the Beatles (This was 1967, after all), but John Lennon famously turned the offer down, suggesting Disney get Elvis instead. (Lennon officially disbanded the Beatles at WDW's Polynesian Resort...Maybe Disney and the Beatles should steer clear of each other.)
The vultures were delightful additions, even though they derailed on the idea of being Beatles knockoffs.
The 2016 movie: There aren't really any original characters in the new film. But there is one special Easter egg of a character worth mentioning.
The movie keeps many characters in the book who weren't in the cartoon (Chil the Kite, Grey Brother, Ikki the Porcupine, and Mao the peacock), and even vice versa (King Louie), but there's a special character, a rhino who makes a comment about Mowgli when the Man-cub approaches the Peace Rock. I thought nothing of him...until I saw the end credits, where he is named "Rocky the Rhino"
During production of the animated film, Disney has written a scene involving Mowgli subjected to the pranks of the vultures, who egg him on to provoke a punch-drunk, nearly blind rhinoceros named Rocky, who was supposed to be voiced by Frank Fontaine. Mowgli wins when the lug crashes into a rock, winning everyone's respect. The vultures sing a sixties rock version of "That's What Friends are for", along with Rocky, who, despite getting beaten by a shrimpy prepubescent boy, joins in the fun.
Rocky's sequence was dropped when Walt Disney himself worried that too many action scenes with ugly animals was too much, between him, the monkeys, and the vultures. Having seen his deleted scene on the Platinum Edition DVD, I warmed up to Rocky, and while far from having profound character depth, he was at least endearing. So to see Favreau took the time to add in a long-lost Disney character, even if it's for only one line, was pretty darn cool.
In conclusion: I still love the books. I still love the animated movie. And I definitely love the new film. If you haven't experienced any of these versions of the story, please do so.
And of course, it doesn't end there. There's a ton of "Jungle Book" movie and TV series with varying degrees of interpretation. From a CGI-animated television series to the original 1942 adaptation, from a Chuck Jones featurette to one with Jason Scott Lee and Cary Elwes, there's plenty of ways to experience Kipling's world.
In 2017, Warner Brothers is doing their own take on the stories, called "Jungle Book: Origins", starring Andy Serkis (Baloo), Christian Bale (Bagheera), Cate Blanchett (Kaa), Benedict Cumberbatch (Shere Khan), and Tom Hollander (Tabaqui). Serkis is also directing this dark, gritty story (Because it's Warner Brothers). I hope it's at least half as good as the Favreau version, because, like Mowgli, I want to stay in the jungle just a little bit longer.