'The Jungle Book' Honors Tradition and Does Something New
Image: Disney
Neel Sethi in 'The Jungle Book'
'The Jungle Book' (1967)
Image: Disney

'The Jungle Book' (1967)

The 1967 animated The Jungle Book was—for no specific reason I can discern—the only Disney movie allowed in our home when my little brother and I were growing up. So it was the only one we watched.

And boy did we watch it.

I haven’t seen it in about twenty years, but last week, talking to my husband about the film, I discovered that every lyric of “The Bare Necessities” was still lodged in my brain, ready for tuneful extraction. I doubt that’s what Rudyard Kipling had in mind when he wrote the stories back in the late nineteenth century, but The Jungle Book was the last film Walt Disney produced—he died during production—and it’s the one most people know.

What made the film so appealing to me and my brother, a couple of kids in the mid-1990s? Part of it was the infectious music, for sure—in addition to “The Bare Necessities,” songs like “Colonel Hathi’s March” and “I Wanna Be Like You” were addictive earworms we could dance around humming. Lines like “What you want to do?” “Oh, I don’t know, what you want to do?” “Now don’t start that again” furnished ready answers when we were out playing in the backyard with the neighborhood kids, riffs we stole from talking vultures.

Talking animals are stock characters in Disney films, and in children’s imaginary worlds; my brother and I would haul our stuffed animals out to the living room and stage entire Bible stories, with them in the starring roles. But there was something different about The Jungle Book’s talking animals. They weren’t Winnie the Pooh characters, who took life only inside Christopher Robin’s imagination. They weren’t imaginary at all. They were real, and it was Mowgli, the mancub, who was the intruder. He had learned to speak their language, instead of the other way around.

Neel Sethi in 'The Jungle Book'
Image: Disney

Neel Sethi in 'The Jungle Book'

When we were still young, my parents moved us out of the suburbs and onto a big plot of land surrounded by trees and woods. It wasn't a jungle by a long shot, but those woods were filled with animals—no panthers, but some foxes, and not wolves, but we could hear coyotes howling at night. Sometimes people talked about bears in the woods. Sometimes we’d come home to discover snakes sunning themselves on the rocks outside our house. In the suburbs, humans were the rule, and animals were the exception. But at our new home, we were the intruders—the animals were there first.

So we were just a tiny bit like Mowgli, my brother and me.

I brought all of this with me (minus my brother, who lives in a different state now with his wife) to see the new The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau, director of the various Iron Mans. For someone who grew up with Disney’s version of Rudyard Kipling’s stories, it’s impossible to enter the theater as a clean slate—just as it is with any story that’s attained the status of myth, from Bible stories to fairy tales. They are stories that are larger than life.

This time Mowgli is played by a real boy (still in his red underpants) named Neel Sethi and not a hand-drawn animated one—though I hope for Sethi’s sake that he’s swapped out for CGI a good deal of the time. And in a manner befitting our time, the animals are mostly voiced by actors you’ll recognize: Ben Kingsley is Bagheera the panther, Lupita Nyong’o is Raksha (Mowgli’s adoptive wolf mother), Scarlett Johansson is Kaa the snake, Idris Elba is Shere Khan the murderous tiger.

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'The Jungle Book' Honors Tradition and Does Something New