Disney’s Jungle Book Is Spectacular, But The Book Is Much Better
A whole generation grew up watching Disney’s Jungle Book cartoons and if you’ve done it in India you probably can’t help but hum its title track, Jungle jungle baat chali hai pata chala hai, chaddi pehen ke phool khila hai… Although it sounds like a children’s story, Disney’s new Jungle Book movie will also appeal to adults, thanks to its mature storytelling and cartoonish nostalgia.
Although we enjoyed watching The Jungle Book, the film constantly reminded us why everyone should read the book it is based on. The stories from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book serve as the loose foundation for the Disney film. If you liked the movie for more than its special effects, you’ll find a much richer world in the book.
As you would expect from a Disney film, all the focus is on Mowgli’s adventures in Seonee Forest. While the boy is loved or accepted by most animals, his nemesis Shere Khan the tiger wants him killed. From there, the film chronicles Mowgli’s struggle for survival. This, in our opinion, deviates from the essence of the book and is a change for the worse.
Kipling’s original story is more about a set of animals than Mowgli himself. Not only is his writing excellent, but Kipling’s fables paint a vivid picture of the Seonee Forest where all the animals obey the law of the jungle. In the film, by contrast, Mowgli’s attachment to his wolf pack brethren barely comes across on screen. This is close to the original cartoon and an absence that was addressed in the animated TV show – and therefore, despite the exotic setting and characters, the film lacks the depth of the original text.
Akela, the leader of the wolf pack, is only a prop in the film, quickly ousted by the arrival of Shere Khan. In the book, Akela is threatened by members of his own pack who seek to take his place as clan leader. We see that a little bit in the movie, before Mowgli announces his decision to leave, and therefore we don’t see Akela’s character. He knows that he is getting old and that he will be killed and replaced by one of his own. The bond between Mowgli and Akela is completely glossed over in the film, as is Mowgli’s passionate defense of his blood brother Akela. Spoiler alert: Shere Khan does not kill Akela in the book. The day after this story, Mowgli begins to cry. Being raised in the jungle, the boy does not understand how he feels and asks Bagheera if he [Mowgli] is dying. The panther explains that Mowgli sheds tears like men do, but if you were to watch the movie, you wouldn’t wonder how alienated Mowgli is from humanity thanks to his upbringing in the jungle.
Baloo, the bear, meticulously teaches Mowgli all about law and respect for the various inhabitants of the jungle. In the book, Mowgli learns that the Jungle People don’t like to be bothered and how not to offend them. He learns what to say to bats when he disturbs them among their branches during the day and what to say to water snakes before jumping into their pools. Baloo also teaches him the hunting call of strangers, where Mowgli must obtain permission from other animals to hunt in their territory.
Baloo isn’t a lazy, honey-hungry one-dimensional creature in the book. It is he who transforms the little man Mowgli into a law-abiding citizen of the jungle. Mowgli spends time with various animals and learns all about the jungle. Baloo the teacher is delighted to have a student who can learn so much. Other students, like the Cubs, ran away as soon as they learned the part of the law that pertained to their species. This forms the basis of the plot of Mowgli’s adventures in The Jungle Book. Without Baloo’s training, Mowgli’s character is just a shadow of himself. Unfortunately, Baloo in the film is a simple plot written to highlight Mowgli’s intelligence.
Although the film has spectacular special effects and good storytelling, it lacks some crucial elements of the original story. King Louie, the huge orangutan who leads the Bandar-log (monkeys), does not exist in the books because the book is based on an Indian forest and orangutans are not native to India. In fact, a crucial part of the book hinges on the monkeys having no king and not following the law of the jungle.
That’s where Ka the Rock Serpent comes in – in the book. She’s not the mesmerizing villain seen in the movie either, though the battle to save Mowgli from the Bandar-log is just as spectacular in the book. The book has an entire story devoted to Ka, and how Baloo and Bagheera use their expert negotiation skills to help her storm the Ape Fortress.
Mowgli isn’t part of every Jungle Book story, and we hope that one day Disney will make a movie about other compelling stories from the book. Who can forget how the selfless mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi risks his life to confront a family of deadly snakes in order to save the human inhabitants of a house in the forest. Darzee, a tailor, is a nice secondary character in this story and also an illustration of Kipling’s keen observation. The bird sews leaves to build its nest and is known for its loud call. Its distinctive nest and call is a big part of the story. When you make a character-focused movie, yummy things like Darzee tend to go away.
Other great stories include The White Seal, which takes place in an ocean, Toomai and the Elephants, about a boy who has a special connection with elephants. These are among many other stories worth telling visually, but other than that the book itself is a fantastic read. If you liked the movie but haven’t read Kipling’s The Jungle Book yet, now is a good time to dive into the author’s eco-friendly paradise.
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