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What can we learn about The Jungle Book (Favreau, 2016) film by viewing it through this interpretative lens?

Module: Film, Genre and Adaptation
Module Coordinator: Dr Alexander Sergeant
Academic Year 1 (2020/2021)

This is one of two essays I wrote for this module. I have decided not to share the first as I fundamentally misunderstood the aim of the assessment. This was a lesson learned and I now know to ask questions. This essay was an interesting one to write and I feel I perhaps focused too much on Disney’s historical representations of minorities and also on comparing the film to the Disney original. If I re-wrote this essay, I would do so with a stronger focus on the question.

The Jungle Book (Favreau, 2016) is a live-action remake of Disney’s animation The Jungle Book (Reitherman, 1967) – both adaptations of Rudyard Kipling’s 1895 collection of fables. It tells a somewhat different story but has the same underlying plot: Mowgli must leave the Jungle and join his people because Shere Khan the Tiger is back and is hunting him. In the 1967 animation there were several stereotypes of race and culture which have been altered, or even dropped completely, in the live-action remake.

Mowgli is a ten-year-old “mancub” who was found in the jungle and raised by wolves. In the animated tale he is portrayed as an innocent, but vulnerable child, whereas in the live-action version he is shown to be of strong character who is quick to think and use his “tricks” to solve problems using MacGyver-esque techniques. He is originally shown as unable to climb but can now climb trees with ease.

When we first meet Baloo the Bear, he talks Mowgli into climbing a rockface to knock honey down for Baloo to eat. He does this, getting stung by the Bees, but later he creates a pulley system with vines and protective armour with leaves so he can get more honey whilst making it safer and more efficient.

This new version of Mowgli is presented as a strong character with great determination, and we see his transformation from boy to man with his problem-solving. It is clear Disney intend Mowgli to be a role model for a younger audience by encouraging them to think out of the box and overcome difficult situations.

Perhaps the most controversy surrounding The Jungle Book (1967) is of the character King Loui of the Apes. This character is a creation by Disney – he did not appear in Kipling’s books. Loui is an Orangutang, voiced by Louis Prima, a well-known Italian American Jazz artist. The problem with the character is that he is a racist stereotype of how black people were perceived by many white people in the 1960’s. His song “I wanna be like you” could be interpreted as a Africans asking for equality and how to be “civilized” (Waterman, 2015, p. 4), yet he and his monkeys are portrayed as thieves – after all they literally kidnap Mowgli and Loui says he will only let him go if he shows him how to make fire.

Loui is a drastically different character in the live-action remake. Whilst he still resembles an Orangutang (who are not even native to India), he is a Gigantopithecus, an extinct ape species. Voiced by Christopher Walken, the character has been transformed into a godfather-esque figure, speaking with an Italian accent and his “I wanna be like you” song is sung in a way that better resembles an ape’s ‘ooh-ooh’. The mafioso resemblance is further reinforced by King Loui telling Mogli “Just one thing we need, to reach our full potential. Bring me that red flower, and we will rule this jungle, I will protect you and you will want for nothing, never again”.

A recreation of the 1967 King Loui would not have been accepted by today’s society. Reimagining the character as a mafioso boss distances the character from its origins and casts it in a new light. Christopher Walken’s performance is reminiscent of his performance as Don Vincenzo in True Romance (Scott, 1993) – a mafioso character is easier for an audience to accept due to their extensive history as genre in film.

Kaa the Snake had more screen time in The Jungle Book (1967) than in Favreau’s 2016 remake, but they played a larger role in the latter. In the original, Kaa is voiced by Sterling Holloway, who voiced Winnie the Pooh, and we hear this character’s soothing voice in the voice of Kaa, perhaps to desensitise the otherwise sinister character. They are characteristic of how child-molesting homosexuals were viewed in the 1960’s. (Metcalf, 1991, p. 91).

In The Jungle Book (2016), Kaa is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, the first time this character has been voiced by a female actor. Kaa does not hypnotise Mowgli in the same sense as they did in the original, but rather Mowgli is hypnotised by the desire to know what happened to his father, and Kaa has the answers.

With a feminine voice this adds to the already seductive traits of Kaa and builds this character into a somewhat typical femme fetale. The comedic elements have been removed, and this portrayal of the character is more in-line with the original novelisation of the character.

The way the Elephants are portrayed between the two versions is drastically different. In the 1967 animation, the Elephants have names, with their leader being a military figure names Col. Hathi. We always see the Elephants marching in formation with Col. Hathi leading them in song. He lines them up for inspection, which is when he meets Mowgli.

There is an underlying issue with these portrayals of the Elephants, and it surrounds the British colonial Empire in India. Col. Hathi is stereotypical of a British Army Officer. Greg Metcalf wrote:

Hathi is the rigid parent who views a family as a military operation, swatting his wife’s rump when she fails to pass inspection. He is so wrapped up in his organizational rituals that he forgets his son and shows no concern over a lost child in the jungle, dismissing Mowgli’s disappearance as “fortunes of war and all that” until his wife intervenes. (1991, p. 89).

In Favreau’s version, the elephants are one of the very few animals who do not speak. They are deeply respected by the other animals and it is said that the elephants created the jungle. This change was made to enforce a form of spiritual education and respect for elders upon a younger audience.

Akela the Wolf, Mowgli’s foster father, is the head of the wolf pack. In the animation he is the one who decides Mowgli should leave the Jungle, but in the live-action it is a group decision from all of the animals. He is killed by Shere Khan, and then Raksha, Mowgli’s foster mother, takes on the responsibility of leading the wolf pack.

Raksha’s newfound responsibility is an embodiment of a strong women being the head of the family, something that was not as common in social culture in the 1960’s – women were often stay at home wives whilst the husband was the breadwinner of the family. Raksha taking on this role breaks down these conventions and forms a more modern and representative example of today’s society.

The closing sequence of each film is very different. We originally see Mowgli making his way to the mancamp and hearing a young girl collecting water and singing a song.

My own home
My own home
My own home
My own home
Father’s hunting in the forest
Mother’s cooking in the home
I must go to fetch the water
‘Til the day that I’m grown
‘Til I’m grown, ’til I’m grown
I must go to fetch the water
‘Til the day that I’m grown
Then I will have a handsome husband
And a daughter of my own
And I’ll send her to fetch the water
I’ll be cooking in the home
Then I’ll send her to fetch the water
I’ll be cooking in the home

Mowgli is smitten by this girl and follows her with an infatuated smile on his face. He is hypnotised by his primal urges and it is not a conscious decision to follow her. Considering the whole film was about his conscious decisions and not wanting to go to the mancamp, this scene is extremely out of place. Although this did occur in the book, Disney’s adaptation did not convey the meaning behind Mowgli’s decision to join the mancamp.

The song itself represents women as servants whose role is to “fetch the water”, “cook in the home”, “have a handsome husband” and “a daughter of my own” whilst the father or husband is “hunting in the forest”. This is a very one-dimensional view on a woman’s role in a family and as such, this entire scene was excluded from Favreau’s remake.

Instead, we see Mowgli decide to stay in the Jungle with the animals, which is another scene that feels out of place, as the primary plot point of the film was to deliver him safely to the man village. We have seen him become a man by using his “tricks” to overcome Shere Khan and his fears.

The reason these decisions were made is perhaps because the creators thought it would send a message to a younger audience that they should make their own decisions and that they can overcome any challenge if they set their mind to it. It was necessary to remove an out-dated and sexist view on women and to show Mowgli making a conscious decision to either leave or stay in the Jungle.

In conclusion, it is clear Disney intended to steer clear of The Jungle Book (1967)’s social and racial issues. Rudyard Kipling was born into British Colonial India, and his tales reflect his experience and views on colonialism – these views were reinforced by Disney’s animated interpretation and have not stood up to the test of time. The views on race and equality are not supported by today’s society, so drastic changes were necessary in Jon Favreau’s 2016 live-action remake. He strengthened the way female characters are perceived by removing the stereotype of a woman should stay at home and “fetch the water” by replacing it with a stronger female character in Raksha; and replaced the negative representation of Africans we saw in King Loui with that of a mafioso.


  • Favreau, J. (Director). (2016). The Jungle Book [Film]. Fairview Entertainment.
  • Kipling, R. (1894). The Jungle Book. Macmillan.
  • Metcalf, G. (1991). ‘It’s A Jungle Book Out There, Kid!’: The Sixties in Walt Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book’. Studies in Popular Culture, 14(1), 85–97.
  • Reitherman, W. (Director). (1967). The Jungle Book [Film]. Walt Disney Animation Studios.
  • Scott, T. (Director). (1993). True Romance [Film]. Morgan Creek Entertainment.
  • Waterman, A. (2005). Perceptions of Race in Three generations of The Jungle Book. Continuum: The Journal of African Diaspora Drama, Theatre and Performance, 1(2).