First Theatrical Release: October 18, 1967
First Home Viewing Release: May 3, 1991
My Rating: 3/5 stars
Where I Found It: The library’s DVD collection
Bechdel Test Score: Failed. There are three female characters, two of which serve as “bookends” to the whole movie: Mowgli’s “wolf mom” and the girl he sees by the “man village” at the movie’s closing. Not only do they not talk to each other, but they do. not. talk. at. all. The elephant general’s wife, Winifred, has speaking lines, however, and she uses them to chew her husband out. I had no idea the jungle was such a “man’s zone.”
The Jungle Book was another one of those Disney movies I never really took to as a child. I didn’t see it when I was little, and by the time it was released, well, The Little Mermaid was already in the world, and everything that came before it felt pretty meh.
There are a few things any Disney aficionado should appreciate about The Jungle Book, though. One is that it was the last movie that Walt Disney personally worked on — he died during its production. It makes me sort of sad to know everything I watch from here on out was created in a world without Walt. The Jungle Book also inspired an impressive amount of spin-offs, from a couple live action movies (with another in the works), to Jungle Cubs, to Tail Spin. And most meaningful to me personally? The lead animator on Jafar from Aladdin was inspired by Shere Khan’s “reserved” villainous style. And I love me my Aladdin.
I read both The Jungle Book and The Jungle Book 2 just a few weeks before watching this, so the differences between the books and the movie were what struck me first and foremost. I read that earlier scripts for The Jungle Book were closer to the book, but that Walt nixed them as being too “dark.” Perhaps that’s why The Jungle Book says it was “inspired by” rather than “based on” Rudyard Kipling’s work. I don’t think he would have been happy about what happened to Mowgli in translation.
In the book, Mowgli learns the “law of the jungle” from the wise (not doofy) Baloo, with Bagheera as his guardian and the wolves as his family. But he is at home amongst all the inhabitants of the jungle. He is strong and wild, has learned the ways of the animals but still has human intelligence (and a very complicated relationship with others of his species). He belongs, and no one would ever think of asking him to leave. He proves a formidable opponent to snakes and jackals, and he kills Shere Khan when he’s about 12 years old. When he leaves the jungle for the man village, he does so because of a growing sense of restlessness and discontent; the jungle begins to chafe him, much the way a teenager’s own home chafes him as he gets ready to strike out on his own. And that is exactly what Mowgli does — on his time, in his way.
In the movie, I was astounded by how frail and vulnerable Mowgli seems. Not only that, but there is this undercurrent of condescension in the way the jungle animals interact with him. We get the sense that he would never survive without the wolves/Bagheera/Baloo looking out for him. Early on, Bagheera berates him with, “Can’t you climb any better than that?” as he tries to get up a tree for a safe night’s sleep. He is naive, and easily taken in by whatever animal culture he encounters. And he does not want to leave the jungle.
The whole plot of the movie revolves around the decision that he must be escorted out of the jungle to keep him safe from Shere Khan, who has returned to the area. Also, getting rid of him will keep the OTHER animals safe from Shere Khan as well, since Mowgli won’t serve as bait to bring him around. The animals keep saying Mowgli has to leave the jungle for his own good, but the truth is, it’s for the animals’ own good, too. So the only family he’s ever known sees him as helpless and incompetent, and kicks him out when keeping him around means increased danger for them. What kind of family is this?
Whereas he decides to leave the jungle after spending a full and adventurous life in it in the book, in the movie he is forced out. The book’s Mowgli grew up and let his maturity guide him; the movie’s wants to remain a child but is thrust into growing up before he is ready by his family and guardians.
Mowgli Has Two Daddies
In this, much of the movie seems to play to the experience of parents attempting to manipulate their child “for his own good” rather than explore the child’s experience of being manipulated. After Mowgli is rescued from the apes, Bagheera convinces Baloo, who, up until this point has been willing to let Mowgli stay in the jungle, that he can’t stay because he needs to be with his own kind. As Baloo tries to figure out how he will break this news to Mowgli, the scene is incredibly reminiscent of two parents discussing their child after he has gone to bed — puzzling out how to execute something they know will make their child unhappy but that they’re going to put him through anyway — a move to another city, perhaps, or a dental appointment.
Oddly, they couch this conversation in the language of matrimony, even though Mowgli is clearly pre-pubescent. Bagheera convinces Baloo that Mowgli needs to be with other humans by demanding, “You wouldn’t marry a panther, would you?” To which I would reply, neither would Bagheera, because there are no female animals in the jungle to marry! (See Bechdel test above).
Ten-Year-Old Girls are SO Seductive
I really hope that heading doesn’t get this post cataloged in all the wrong places.
Ultimately, even Disney’s version of Mowgli doesn’t have to be “forced” out of the jungle because, when they finally arrive at the man village, Mowgli sees a girl about his age drawing water from the river. He is captivated by her — I would argue, not only because she is human, but because there is such a dearth of females in the jungle.
In the book, Mowgli is post-pubescent when he decides to leave the jungle for the man village — but even though he’s got all his hormones running full-throttle, his decision to leave isn’t based on a woman’s seduction; it’s based on his own internal clock telling him it is time to move on. So why is it that Disney needed a sexy lady to lure its pre-pubescent version of Mowgli away from the jungle?
Because there is no doubt about it — Mowgli’s discovery of his first human is played out in the imagery of courtship. The little girl also has not gone through puberty yet, but her interactions with Mowgli are coy and practiced. She bats her eyes when she looks at him, and she sways her non-existant hips as she walks down the village path. She drops her water jar on purpose, feigning incompetence, to lure Mowgli closer. She knows nothing about this jungle boy except that he runs around in his undies, but apparently the fact that he is male is enough to inspire her to pull out all the stops. Disney’s reduction of women to their romantic roles is problematic enough when we’re dealing with teenage or adult characters, but must we apply it to little girls, too? I guess you’re never too young to start practicing to snag a man.
Okay, so I KNOW girls were married off much younger in India back then and a ten-year-old bride may not have been too far from the truth. But this movie is not going for cultural awareness (when has Disney propagated that? Wait till I watch Aladdin …), it’s going for family entertainment for Westerners. And in that context, a flirtatious ten-year-old is not cute. It’s creepy.
Luckily, we now have organizations like the American Psychological Association’s Taskforce on the Sexualization of Girls to help us in the ongoing battle to undo the damage.
My Final Verdict
My reaction to The Jungle Book is still sort of meh all these years later. Disney’s Mowgli is incredibly endearing, even if Disney did strip him of his competence. Baloo reminds me of the creepy uncle I wouldn’t let babysit my kids. I love Bagheera. Disney succeeded in taking a somewhat harsh story and adequately sanitizing and “cutifying” it — but nonetheless, I felt an ache in my heart when the movie ended, knowing Bagheera and Baloo would return to the jungle with an emptiness between them. So somewhere in all of that, Disney’s ability to create emotionally resonant film still managed to get through.