So, like I promised, here is my second article about Disney’s two best takes on The Jungle Book. Last time I discussed the changes made compared to the source material and to each other. This time I will focus on how those two movies stack up to each other on a narrative level.
1. The Protagonist
Despite the title I choose for this section, I am actually not sure if Mowgli even if the protagonist of the animated movie. Yes, the story is about his journey, the villain is hunting him and his decisions largely drive the plot. But he also comes off like a living McGuffin for large stretches of the story, and I don’t use that word lightly. Nowadays it is thrown around at every opportunity, but it kind of fits in this case. Between no less that three characters wanting to either eat or possess Mowgli as well as two characters trying to rescue him all the time, there is a lot of passing around of Mowgli between the different players, sometimes literally. Add to this that the story is told from Bagheera’s point of view and that he is the one who accomplishes his goal in the end by bringing his charge to the village, and one has to question if the story isn’t more about him than Mowgli.
Consequently there is way more to Mowgli’s character in the remake. He has a clear desire – to be like the other wolves – he has a close relationship to a number of characters and above all, he is very self-reliant. I never quite bought into the Mowgli from the animated movie being so helpless. Yes, he is a child, but he is a child growing up in the jungle. He should have some basic self-preservation skills. The Mowgli in the remake does. He is still very vulnerable, but he also has some tools he can use and knows what to do when he ends up in danger. And he has an actual character arc. Kind of. In a way, it is still more Bagheera’s arc, because he goes from refusing Mowgli the freedom to use his humans abilities to allowing it within reason. But at the very least the movie examines Mowgli’s struggle to fit in, and to obey the laws of the jungle. It allows him agency, and that is a welcome change.
2. The Mentors
On a first glance, the two takes on Bagheera and Baloo are very similar in the sense that they differ from the book in the same way. Bagheera in the book has a whole backstory which explains his dedication to Mowgli, but is never relevant in either adaptation. And Baloo is portrayed as a wise animal and often strict teacher instead of the lazy joker Disney created.
Thus said, Baloo in the animated movie actually has something close to an arc in that he has to learn that his irresponsible actions have consequences, which eventually leads to him having to “betray” Mowgli in order to protect him, nearly dying fighting Shere Kahn and finally letting go of Mowgli. In the live action movie, the arc is still there, but it is kind of muddled because it is Baloo himself who first convinces Mowgli to not go to the village just yet, and they have an agreement that Mowgli will go there should it be necessary. What the live action take does better though is their first meeting. In the animated movie, Baloo befriends Mowgli just because they happen to bump in each other. The live action take gives Baloo a reason for his initial interest and takes the time to show how their friendship develops.
On the flip side though the live action take gives Bagheera an arc by allowing him to accept Mowgli’s human talents eventually instead of forcing him to act like a wolf in everything. In the animated movie he doesn’t change or develop at all despite his struggle to protect Mowgli being the focal point of the plot. He is right at the start of the movie and he stays being right towards the end of it. The only thing which can be considered somewhat of a change is that he has loosened up a little bit and is now appreciating Baloo a little bit more.
Both Bagheera and Baloo work the best in the remake whenever their characters are taken in a new direction and more fleshed out, but whenever it tries to recreate scenes from the animated movies, they fall flat because the they are lacking the same kind of built-up. It also does a better job to explore their relationship to Mowgli and to each other. By the end of it, the three characters feel like a true family unity.
3. The Elephants
I think the aspect which was changed the most from the original animated movie to the remake is the role of the elephants. In the animated movie, they acted as comic relief and are maybe the one time in which Disney shows some awareness about the larger context in the which the original book was written. Meaning Haiti ends up behaving like a stereotypical english officer during colonial times: Clueless but convinced of his own importance. Which is a stereotype we might want to rethink nowadays. Because I feel we kind of let the English off the hook if we we act as if what they did was just ignorance and not above all the attempt to squeeze foreign countries for their own benefit.
Hence I am kind of glad that the remake decides to go back to the roots and portray the elephants more like the nearly mythical creatures they are in the book. For one, it is more respectful towards Indian Culture in which the elephant is considered to be a royal animal, but I also love the moments of awe whenever they turn up. It gives the movie a very different vibe.
Plus, the remake actually utilizes the elephants as important part of the plot. In the animated movie they are only around for two reason: For some quick jokes and so that Shere Kahn can overhear Bagheera talking to Haiti about Mowgli. That’s it. But in the remake, they rescue the day in the end.
4. The Villains
Speaking of Shere Khan: He is sufficiently threatening in both versions. I have to say though, that his motivation in the animated movie makes more sense because it is simpler. He was away, he is back, and once he realizes that Mowgli is living in the Jungle, he will look for him and kill him because he hates humans in general. There is even an explanation why he hates humans: Because they are the one beings which are usually dangerous to him.
This seems to be initially the story with which the remake goes, too. Due to a hot summer, all animals meet at the watering hole, which leads to Shere Khan discovering Mowgli. But then they add this overly complicated story about Shere Khan killing Mowgli’s father and gotten scared in the process. I appreciate the effort to add a more personal note into their conflict, but for one, the story is unnecessarily convoluted and two, it kind of undermines the larger theme in the movie about acceptance. Because hatred against outsiders is rarely based on personal experience, it is usually the fear of the unknown which causes it.
Speaking of convoluted, the same is true for Kaa. In the animated movie, the story is simple, Kaa sees something tasty and wants it. This happens in the remake, too, but for some reason Kaa feels the need to tell Mowgli his whole backstory before eating him. That creates so many questions, starting with how Kaa even knows about it. This could have worked if they had created Kaa closer to the book (where she is actually a third mentor for Mowgli), but they somehow ended on some sort of mix between the wise snake and the dangerous predator which doesn’t work at all.
What works better is King Louis. In that the version in the remake is truly threatening. It’s a step away from the animated movie which really works because as enjoyable King Louis is as a character there, I never really got the sense that Mowgli is in actual danger with the apes. In the remake, King Louis acts more like some sort of mob boss instead of a silly king, whose own minions aren’t really afraid of him.
5. The Themes
Both movies ask basically the same question – where does Mowgli belong- , but come up with a very different answer. The animated movie falls firmly on the side that Mowgli finding his way back to other humans is unavoidable. Which, frankly, carries some really unfortunate implications from today’s perspective. Consequently the remake bakes a message about accepting each other differences while also following the law of society into the movie.
Society is also a big theme in the original stories. More often than not Mowgli learns some sort of lesson through his encounters with different animals. But this element is so watered down in the animated movie that any resemblance of a broader message is lost outside of Mowgli not being able to truly be like another animal, no matter how much he tries to fit in. Which frankly creates a very questionable Aesop by accident. And I am saying “by accident” because I don’t think that the animated movie even had the ambition to address some sort of larger theme. It just wanted to provide some fun time with a bunch of memorable characters.
The remake on the other hand clearly wants to examine Mowgli’s relationship with the other animals and his need to get acceptance. At the same time it celebrates not just Mowgli’s attempts to fit in, but also his differences, the abilities which give him an edge in certain situations. It is a concept one can easily translate to any stranger in any society and I don’t think that the Aesop is accidental at all in this case. It feels like a very deliberate commentary about recent events and anti-immigration politics.
6. The Animation
Yes, we need to talk about animation, because no matter how much the newest Jungle Book is tooted as a live action movie, in reality the only thing actually “real” in it is Mowgli himself. In the end, it basically is an animated movie, but one which goes for a hyper-realistic style. And it is an impressive achievement. If there is one point of criticism I have than that seeing the animals talking initially plunged me into uncanny valley territory, but I got used to it pretty quickly. And more than once I was very impressed about the movie managing to translate designs from the animated movie into CGI. Especially the moment in which Mowgli encounters Junior the first time made me smile, they got the expression of the little elephant spot on.
Who would have guessed that the only thing real in this picture is the boy?
Speaking of the animated movie: It looks great for the era in which it was made. As I pointed out before, what I call the Disney Impressionism was limited by the need of making an affordable movie, so it never was as ambitious as the Disney eras which came beforehand, nor can it compete with the Disney renaissance, which allowed the animators to reach new highs due to the use of computers. But The Jungle Book was also a pet project of Walt Disney, which ensured that the animation ended up one of the best the era has to offer. The jungle itself looks lush, and while there are still very notable lines in the animation itself, the character designs belong to Disney’s best work.
7. The Music
The music of the two movies is more or less the same, at least regarding the songs, except it isn’t. But let’s take this from the top. The soundtrack of the animated version is iconic. While the score wasn’t originally written for The Jungle Book (yes, that is true, the main theme is one of the unused pieces of the Sherman Brothers originally created for The Sword in the Stone), it creates the secretive mood around the jungle, making it both threatening and exiting. To be honest here, the songs are the main reason why this movie is so successful in the first place. All the iconic scenes in it involve the characters singing and dancing.
Ironically the use of the songs is mostly to the detriment of the remake. It works whenever a song is played mostly in the background like in the scene with Kaa, or when a character just hums a few lines, like Baloo does at one point. But whenever they break out in a musical number it is awkward and interrupts the flow of the movie. Or, to put it differently, having Baloo singing about the easiest way to get food while demonstrating his abilities to Mowgli is very dynamic and a lot of fun. Having him do it while floating in the water ruins the feel of the scene.
But I think the worst example of it is King Louie starting to sing. The song simply doesn’t fit the character as it is represented in the movie, and having this threatening figure break out in lyrics is just really, really jarring. I get that Disney wanted to appeal to the fans of the animated movie, but I think it would have been better to tone it down a little bit regarding the songs. CGI just can’t create the same kind of dynamic movies traditional animation is able to offer, and tonally it is very jarring when a movie which doesn’t start as a musical suddenly becomes one out of nowhere.
8. The Sequel
Let’s cover this fast: The sequel to the animated movie was a huge let down. I actually saw this one in theatres, back when I was unaware of what a cheapquel even was. I thought it was a genuine attempt to continue the story by the animation studio itself and was frankly stunned by what I saw, a tired rehash of the highlights of the first movie barely connected through a very uninspired plot.
But if there is a story for which a sequel makes sense, it is The Jungle Book. It shouldn’t be too difficult to carve out a solid trilogy out of stories in it. Which is why I look forward to the seeing a sequel of the remake, especially since it would no longer be beholden to the animated movie.
9. The Big Difference
Those are two movies which were made with a very different goal in mind. Rumour is that Walt Disney assembled a new team of animators and told them to not read the book after he was dissatisfied with the original storyboards for the movie. His take on the story was never meant to reflect the story, it was meant to be a Disney movie first and foremost.
The Remake had a way more challenging task. It had to create something which would satisfy fans of this animated movie, but would also please a modern audience. On top of this there was some effort made to reintroduce aspects from the book back into the story, as well as having a thematic underpinning. Meaning that in a lot of ways, the remake is the more ambitious movie.
10. The Conclusion
The animated Jungle Book is just a piece of good natured fun and has no intention to be anything more than that. It succeeds in being just that, making it one of those cases in which a movie is not a particular good adaptation, but an enjoyable watch anyway on its own terms. The songs are catchy, the character animation impressive, and while it is far from being one of my personal favourite Disney movie, it is beloved by many for a reason.
The remake struggles between being a remake and trying to tell its own take on the story. But in the end, it mostly succeeds, mostly because their version of Mowgli is a way more compelling character. This would be a must-watch movie for the technical aspects alone, but it also offers a modern take on The Jungle Book which is well worth watching.
You can’t really go wrong with either movie. They both provide a valid take on the original story in their own way. Making this the first (and so far only) Disney remake I would recommend.