The Jungle Book (1967)

Yes, that’s a VHS tape of The Jungle Book, and I just watched it at home using my VHS player. (Nothing beats a video that starts off with “Coming Soon in 1997.” Did you know that they released the 1989 movie The Little Mermaid back into theaters that year? Best Disney movie ever.)

I have mixed feelings about the Jungle Book cartoon. On the one hand, I love watching Bagheera slink around and roll his eyes. Shere Kahn is delightful as well. The voice of Baloo is just perfect. The animation of Kaa the snake is hilarious. On the other hand, I can’t get over the fact that Kaa speaks with the totally incongruous voice of Winnie the Pooh, a character who is the opposite of sneaky and threatening, while the Mowgli in this story does absolutely nothing but sulk and giggle and sulk and giggle the entire time. The only time he makes a decision is in the tacked-on ending invented by Walt himself—about which, more later—and his use of tools is limited to the aimless swishing of various twigs.

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SPOILERS, including a detailed plot summary and comparisons with the 2016 movie, below.

The Jungle Book: 1967 vs 2016

1967: The beginning of the movie is narrated by Bagheera, who finds Mowgli alone in a busted river boat and secretly deposits him in front of the den of a mother wolf, who takes him in.

2016: Mowgli is found and placed with the wolves by Bagheera after his father burns Shere Kahn and gets killed.

1967: Ten years pass, and the wolves hold a council that decides not to protect Mowgli from Shere Kahn, who hates man. Bagheera makes Mowgli leave and Mowgli whines about it.

2016: Shere Kahn threatens all the animals in person during a drought, thus prompting the wolves to hold a council. Mowgli decides it’s better for him to go than to endanger his adoptive family and leaves with Bagheera, not necessarily to go to the man village.

1967: Mowgli is hypnotized by Kaa and almost eaten, but is saved by Bagheera. Then, Mowgli is so stubborn that Bagheera abandons him to fend for himself.

2016: Shere Kahn attacks Bagheera and Mowgli, but Mowgli escapes on his own. Mowgli is hypnotized by a female Kaa and almost eaten, but is saved by Baloo.

1967: Baloo happens across moping Mowgli and tries to teach him to fight and roar like a bear. Bagheera thinks Mowgli is under attack and returns, only to witness Mowgli fall under Baloo’s spell as he sings a song about living a carefree life in the jungle. (Some Lion King parallels here.)

2016: Baloo makes Mowgli get honey for him, which Mowgli does by making all sorts of tools and contraptions, as only a human can do, and the two become friends.

1967: Mowgli gets kidnapped right out from under Baloo’s nose by the monkeys. King Louie (an orangutan) tells Mowgli he will ensure that Mowgli can stay safe in the jungle forever if he brings back fire. Mowgli says he can’t, but has a lot of fun dancing until he’s ‘rescued’ by Bagheera and Baloo.

2016: Bagheera tells Baloo that Mowgli must go to the man village and convinces him to betray his friendship. Mowgli is deeply hurt. Then he gets kidnapped and taken to the king of the monkeys, a threatening and impossibly giant being who sings and wants fire. Mowgli gets rescued by Bagheera and an admirably loyal Baloo, but finds out to his horror that his wolf dad has been killed by Shere Kahn… a fact his friends had kept from him.

1967: Bagheera tells Baloo that Mowgli must go to the man village and convinces him to betray his friendship. Mowgli is deeply hurt. He gets attacked by Kaa again, but escapes on his own and goes wandering off morosely into the land of some British vultures with weird hair, who tease and then befriend him.

2016: Mowgli goes and steals fire from the man village and returns to his jungle home to confront Shere Kahn.

1967: Shere Kahn attacks Mowgli. Baloo and the vultures fight and distract him. Lightning strikes a dead tree, which catches fire. The vultures tell Mowgli that fire is the only thing that scares Shere Kahn. Mowgli ties a burning branch to Shere Kahn’s tail and he runs off. Baloo seems to have died after being bitten by Shere Kahn, but wakes up during Bagheera’s teary eulogy.

2016: Mowgli has accidentally set the forest on fire but he doesn’t use the fire on Shere Kahn. His friends fight Shere Kahn while he builds a deadly trap. After Shere Kahn has fallen to his death, Mowgli and his elephant friends divert the river to put out the fires in the jungle.

1967: Everyone’s okay now, and it seems that Mowgli will stay with Baloo (not the wolves) forever. That is, until Mowgli catches sight of a girl just outside the man village. She’s singing and collecting water. He gets all twitterpated (love crazy, like the animals in Bambi in springtime) and decides to follow the girl back into the village. Baloo is momentarily annoyed while Bagheera is gratified, and then the two animals go off singing into the jungle. The End.

2016: Mowgli goes back to living with all his friends in the jungle, most particularly the wolves, who now are more accepting of his human abilities. The End.

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More Thoughts on the Jungle Book Movies

The core of the 1967 movie is the friendship between the boy and the bear. Apparently Walt Disney took Rudyard Kipling’s setting and some ideas for characters but almost nothing else; he insisted that the people working on his film NOT read the book. It was a successful movie, so he must have done something right.

In terms of drama, the 2016 movie is better. The protectiveness Bagheera feels towards Mowgli is still there, as is the boy/bear friendship, but there’s so much more going on, mostly relating to the wolves. The wolf pack is where Mowgli’s story begins and ends. Mowgli’s identity is painfully split between boy and wolf in a way that has to be reconciled by the end of the story. The threat to the wolves is what sends Mowgli towards the man village at the beginning, what maintains the tension in the middle of the story, and what brings Mowgli back for a confrontation with Shere Kahn at the end.

The elephants, too, have a more important role to play in the 2016 movie. In the 1967 movie, the elephants are little more than a distraction. They march around on a military patrol, led by an comically self-important patriarch. When Mowgli wanders off, Shere Kahn overhears Bagheera asking the elephants to look for him, which they do, because Mowgli made friends with the baby. But they don’t find him, or enter into the story again. In the 2016 movie, the elephants are far from silly. They are revered as mysterious creator gods of the jungle, and—after Mowgli rescues the baby—play a pivotal role in the finale, helping Mowgli balance the man-made disaster with a similarly man-made solution.

So Disney’s classic Jungle Book cartoon is a classic, though not my favorite, and its new version is actually more complex than I gave it credit for.

Now all that’s missing is a comparison with the book!

Oh. No, I’m wrong. There are two other live-action Disney remakes. After reading that article, though, I don’t feel any particular need to see them. Ever.