What do we make of The Jungle Book (1967)? I ask because it comes with one of those Disney disclaimers before it plays on Disney+, the Mouse’s way of retroactively apologizing for its insensitivities of the past. I get it, now that I have seen it (finally), though there are worse representations within the pantheon of Disney titles. There is a reason why you cannot find Song of the South (1946). In The Jungle Book, the problematic sequence centers on King Louie (voiced by Louis Prima), the leader of a band of mischievous orangutans. They are vaguely African American, though interestingly none of the voice actors were African American. Thus, what you are hearing and seeing is more your head telling you that something is off. Anyway, watch it and judge for yourself.
This version of Rudyard Kipling’s novel The Jungle Book on which this is based starts with an infant named Mowgli (voiced by Bruce Reitherman). He does his best Moses impression by being found in a basket in the river. That is where the comparisons between the Bible and this tale begin and end. For one thing, the male black panther, Bagheera (voiced by Sebastian Cabot), is nothing like the Egyptian royalty that discovers the boy who would lead the Israelites to the land of Canaan. It should be noted before continuing that none of the animals in this movie behave as one would expect. Indeed, Bagheera, instead of eating a defenseless baby as any animal of prey would do, decides to protect Mowgli. Bagheera notices right away that the child needs sustenance, and that is not something he can provide. His solution is to take Mowgli to a pack of wolves to raise the “man cub,” as Mowgli is referred to throughout the film. Again, he is not torn limb-from-limb by the den. There, Mowgli lives for the next ten years, basically thinking he is a wolf. Bagheera is never far away, regularly checking in on the man cub. Things would have proceeded in this manner, too, had it not been for the return to their area of the jungle of the dreaded tiger named Shere Khan (voiced by George Sanders). With his coming, the wolves decide that it is not safe in the jungle anymore for Mowgli, and that the man cub must return to his own kind. Bagheera volunteers to escort the boy to the village, setting forth in the early morning before Mowgli is fully awake. When he comes to and realizes what is going on, Mowgli is not keen to leave the jungle. No matter how much reasoning Bagheera attempts, Mowgli is insistent that he not afraid of Shere Khan. To be blunt, Mowgli behaves like a brat, and it tries Bagheera’s patience. Along their route, they encounter a number of different animals that the man cub believes for a little while he can be, even if they are not always keen to have him join their ranks. The first is a herd of elephants led by Colonel Hathi (voiced by J. Pat O’Malley, who believes that he once served in the British Army and treats the other pachyderms like soldiers. The one that Mowgli has the most success with is Baloo (voiced by Phil Harris), a bear. Whatever. His easy-going attitude makes for a fast-forming bond between the two, and has Bagheera heading off into the brush in exasperation. Their friendship is tested early on when Mowgli is kidnapped by the aforementioned orangutans. They bring the man cub to King Louie, who desires that the human teach the primates how to produce fire. While Mowgli protests that he does not know how to do so, Baloo and Bagheera mount a rescue. Baloo has a clumsier approach, and his antics, while successful, lead to the destruction of the Hindu temple in which the orangutans reside. Shortly thereafter, Bagheera is able to impart on Baloo the importance of taking Mowgli to the human village, to which the Bear reluctantly agrees. Unfortunately, Mowgli feels betrayed once again and runs deeper into the jungle. He comes to a stop at a desolate place in the middle of a rainstorm. Nearby are a group of vultures (with cockney accents, for some reason), who attempt to cheer up the man cub by trying to get him to believe he is one of them. This is when Shere Khan finally catches up with Mowgli. The vultures are useless in protecting him. Who is more effectual is Bagheera and Baloo, who arrive in time to save Mowgli once again. In the process, Baloo is hurt distracting the tiger while Mowgli (ironically) ties a burning bush to his tail. Shere Khan’s one fear is fire, and he runs panicked into the night. Mowgli believes Baloo to be dead, but the bear perks up when he hears Bagheera saying kind things about him. From there, they are free to continue on to the village. Once there, Mowgli’s misgivings are instantaneously dissolved when he sees a human girl (Darleen Carr). They soon lock eyes and something comes over Mowgli, and he just as quickly abandons any attachment to the jungle as he follows her into the village. This is as Bagheera and Baloo hoped, and they walk happily into the jungle.
The Jungle Book is another of those blessedly short early Disney animated features that are handy to put on when you are in a time crunch. My use of the word “blessedly” has nothing to do with the objectionable material contained therein. In fact, as a practicing Catholic I would look at other aspects of the film as objectionable. Probably the worst part comes with what is arguably the most famous song from the movie, “The Bare Necessities.” Now, there is a way of looking at this tune that jives with Faith. After all, its mantra is to only concern oneself with what one needs to survive. Everything else is “worry . . . and strife.” The problem is that it sets up a sort of carefree attitude that can be dangerous in trying to deal with serious matters. One thing I like to tell my spiritual directees is that God never gives us more than we can handle. The worry I have with the philosophy behind a song like this one is that it could lead someone to avoid handling anything of importance, particularly if it does not bring some form of pleasure. Life has its happy moments when it seems like all we need are those bare necessities, especially when we are in tune with the truth that God is control. Life also brings troubled times when all we can do to get by is journey deeper into His heart. Another problematic portion is the King Louie sequence. The potential racism is one thing. The orangutan leader wanting the ability to produce fire is another issue. Such a notion upsets God’s plan.
I cannot remember 2016 version of The Jungle Book enough to make a comparison to the 1967 one. Whatever it was that was in the live-action remake, I am sure that it avoided some of the more controversial aspects. I do remember that Bill Murray voiced Baloo if that counts for anything. I bring this up because I am not sure which I would recommend, if either of them. As such, I would say to see neither of them.