“There’s no place in the jungle for these tricks.”
Bagheera the panther
I knew, of course, that Disney’s live-action remake of its late 60s cartoon Jungle Book, based on the works of arch-colonialist Rudyard Kipling, would have to work very, very hard to be anything other than problematic.
I was seduced, however, by the theatrical trailer, with its lush, orchestral rendition of “Bare Necessities”, blatantly designed to induce nostalgia even in people who haven’t seen the film, into thinking: well, it can’t possibly be that bad…
For a film which is so overtly invested in looking back to its antecedent, The Jungle Book actually does very little to build on the original, and what it does do only serves to make the film, er, worse.
(I should note at this point that my memories of the cartoon version are very vague indeed.)
The film begins similarly to its predecessor: the presence of a human child, Mowgli, in the company of a pack of wolves in an Indian jungle draws the unwelcome attention of Shere Khan, a scarred and tyrannical tiger. In order to save the pack and restore the law of the jungle, Mowgli, accompanied by his panther mentor Bagheera, must return to the human village, hunted by the tiger at every step.
Which, OK. Fluffy exotic carnivores do make for a good children’s film. (See also: Ice Age.)
But then the remake veers off on its own, presumably in order to demonstrate that it is grown up now and can make its own mistakes. Mowgli meets Baloo the bear, who is a good deal more acquisitive than his original and wants Mowgli to fetch him some honey which Baloo can’t reach. Mowgli rises to this challenge by using (gasp) tools to create a rudimentary pulley. When Bagheera catches up with Mowgli and finds Baloo’s massive cave stocked with possibly more honey than he could ever eat, he’s furious: the jungle has no place for human tricks, he says. And this is where the film’s main failure lies: its insistent, perfidious refusal to address precisely why human tricks are bad for the jungle.
It certainly feels like there’s room for an ecological message here – looking at those vast racks of honey, I actually thought Bagheera might note how there’s now not enough for other jungle denizens, and I certainly don’t think it would be an egregious turn from the spirit of the original to reframe the story as an exploration of how humanity can interact with the flora and fauna of the forest to mutual benefit. But the ecological potential of the honey moment remains unstated: Mowgli shouldn’t use his ingenuity in the jungle just because. And although he does go on to use it later in the film, uses it, in fact, to save the jungle, it remains something that is exclusively his – the quintessence of humanity, if you like – something exclusively within his control, something that he imposes upon the jungle creatures instead of sharing it with them.
So let’s park that for a moment and think about the Red Flower (fire), which, like Mowgli’s tool-using abilities, is posited as an exclusively human possession. Apart from the fact that this is just obviously factually incorrect (forest fires, anyone?), the name the animals use for it is uncomfortably reminiscent of the kind of superstitious, childish speech which Western colonialist authors have patronisingly ascribed to native human populations for several centuries. The Jungle Book, with its essentialist emphasis on Mowgli’s – on humanity’s – innate superiority can be read as a colonialist fable, one perpetuated by its ending (again different from its original’s), which sees Mowgli remaining in the jungle, riding one of the previously untouchable holy elephants: a colonist not deigning to share his technology but expecting to reap the benefits of the jungle, and, what’s worse, ruling it by right, because of his nature. Quite apart from the colonialist overtones, it’s a profoundly anti-democratic sentiment.
And, yes, this is only to be expected in an adaptation of Kipling’s original Jungle Book, published at the end of the empire in 1894; but this present Jungle Book is a remake of something that hardly resembles that original. Besides, the more immediate source material (Disney’s ’67 cartoon) is actually less problematic, which is astonishing given the progress we’re supposed to have made since then. (It’s especially notable that the directors of the remake have made the evil snake Kaa female, without touching the gender of any of the other characters. Did the studio honestly not realise how offensive this is?) It quite honestly beggars belief that this kind of thing can keep getting made.