It’s been 49 years since Disney’s animated classic The Jungle Book was released in theaters. And it’s that delightful film that finds itself next up on Disney’s fascinating list of live-action remakes of animated classics.
Like most of the stories that inspired Disney’s classic animated films, there’s a lot more to the literary Jungle Book than is widely remembered. Before the new Jungle Book premieres April 15th, take a look at these edifying bits of info running the whole gambit of the story’s origins and various adaptations.
Here are 15 Things You Didn’t Know About The Jungle Book.
15. THE JUNGLE BOOK WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN 1894
The stories that make up what’s known as The Jungle Book were originally published as short stories in various magazines in 1893 and 1894. Indian-born English author Rudyard Kipling wrote the stories while he was actually living in Vermont.
The purposes behind the stories were meant to be fables to illustrate moral lessons with the various animal characters as anthropomorphic teachers. Though some academics have argued that the stories also carry political allegories for the time of publication.
The first published edition of the collected stories included illustrations by Kipling’s own father, John Lockwood Kipling. Also in the books, each of the seven stories are followed by a passage of verse or poetry. These are designed to be thematic summations of the lessons meant to be gleaned from each of the stories preceding them.
14. MOWGLI ONLY APPEARS IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE JUNGLE BOOK
Less than half, even. The famous story of Mowgli that we know comes primarily from the first three of the seven stories that make up the original Jungle Book. The first story, titled “Mowgli’s Brothers,” tells the story of the man cub who is raised by a family of wolves. A bear named Baloo and a black panther named Bagheera also become Mowgli’s closest friends and teach him about the ways of survival in the jungle. “Mowgli’s Brothers” also sees Mowgli’s first confrontation with the fierce tiger Shere Khan.
“Kaa’s Hunting” is the second story in The Jungle Book and actually takes place in between certain events recounted in “Mowgli’s Brothers.” This is where Mowgli gets abducted by monkeys. Like we’ve seen in adaptations, he’s eventually rescued by Baloo and Bagheera.
13. THE ANIMALS’ CHARACTER NAMES ARE ETYMOLOGICALLY UNORIGINAL
In other words the character’s names are mostly based on the Hindi words for the animals themselves or amalgamations of various Indian Subcontinent languages. Bagheera, called a black panther or black Indian leopard, is based on the Hindi word bāgha, which means tiger. Baloo is inspired by Bhālū which was the Hindi word for several species of Indian bears used by the naturalist Robert Armitage Sterndale. Shere Khan’s name takes two distinct inspirations. Shere or “shir” translates as “tiger” or “lion” in Persian, Urdu, and Punjabi. While Khan translates as “sovereign,” “king,” or “military leader” in several languages influenced by the conquering Mongols, including Pashto. Think Genghis Khan.
Mowgli’s own name is a made up word by Kipling’s own admission. Within the world of the book it is supposed to mean “frog” in the tongue of the Jungle. In fact, the first syllable in Mowgli’s name is meant to be pronounced like a “cow” and not a “know.”
12. THERE HAVE BEEN PLENTY OF SCREEN ADAPTATIONS
The Jungle Book is definitely up there among the influential children’s stories to get multiple adaptations to the screen. This includes 4 live action adaptations and 5 different animated feature films and TV adaptations. Disney wasn’t the first to adapt the story, but they certainly created the version that captured the public’s imagination. Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Beauty and the Beast are mostly known today according to how Disney told the story. The studio’s prodigious knack for invoking emotional responses to animated stories and characters worked just as well for their version of The Jungle Book.
Disney’s first animated version was so successful that they got to create a cartoon TV spinoff series with the character Baloo called TailSpin, which premiered in 1990. There was also a DisneyToon animated sequel called The Jungle Book 2. It even had Haley Joel Osment and John Goodman as the voices of Mowgli and Baloo respectively.
11. THE FIRST LIVE ACTION ADAPTATION WAS RELEASED IN 1942
Before Disney got to The Jungle Book, two Hungarian filmmaking brothers took a shot at adapting Kipling’s book. Jungle Book (1942) was directed Zoltán Korda, produced (in Technicolor) by his brother Alexander, and starred Sabu Dastagir as Mowgli. The plot is loosely based on the story “Tiger! Tiger!” in so far as it’s mostly about Mowgli dealing with the human world after he reaches manhood. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
Animal characters from the books like Bagheera and Shere Khan and Kaa appear as supporting characters instead of main characters. Mowgli’s main conflict is with members of the human village who see him as savage or demonic or who want to steal the natural and hidden treasures of the jungle. The movie also ends on an environmentally friendly note, with Mowgli returning to live in the jungle where he grew up. Also, the movie sets up Mowgli’s story as a meta-narrative being told by the elderly Buldeo in retrospect. He was one of the villagers who antagonized Mowgli but he has since come to appreciate his experiences with the wild youth and the wonders of the untouched jungle.
10. DISNEY CHANGED A LOT FOR THEIR ANIMATED CLASSIC
Disney’s famous 1967 animated adaptation took some Disneyfied liberties with the original characters and story, as one might expect. For instance, The Jungle Book had pretty quaint sensibilities about corporal punishment. Admittedly, this was among anthropomorphic animals, but Baloo teaches Mowgli about the laws of survival in the jungle instead of the easy-going bare necessities. He also smacks Mowgli upside the head whenever Mowgli gets one of the rules wrong in the lesson, so much so that Bagheera has to step in and discourage any more beating.
Shere Khan got all the malice from among the original characters assigned to him, though in the books he was a bit less threatening. He was even lame in one paw. Kaa the python certainly didn’t have any psychedelic rainbow eyes. In the books he was even another wise companion and protector of Mowlgi, who helps rescue him from the monkeys.
9. THE SOVIET UNION MADE AN ANIMATED JUNGLE BOOK MOVIE IN 1973
As bizarre as it sounds, Soviet Russia they made a surprisingly faithful Jungle Book adaptation called Adventures of Mowgli in English. It was more faithful to the original books in terms of content and themes than the more family friendly Disney film. Mowgli grows from a tot to a young man, more in line with his growth in the books, and this version has Kaa as an ally too. They were even originally released as 5 separate episodes, like the book’s stories, between 1967 and 1971. In 1973 they were edited together into a 90 minute feature film.
The English version wasn’t released until 1996 as a direct-to-video movie, but it included the voice of Charlton Heston as the narrator. Whether due to lingering political and cultural tension or just a desire for another family friendlier movie, the English version had a lot altered and cut. Songs that didn’t exist in original were added. There were scenes in the Russian version that had Mowgli mutilating some of the wild animals.
8. RUDYARD KIPLING COINED THE PHRASE “WHITE MAN’S BURDEN”
Disney has been known to gloss over some of the uglier aspects of the source material for its movies. The Jungle Book comes with more than its fair share of problematic history. In 1899, Kipling published a poem called “The White Man’s Burden” in U.S. newspapers, which deliberately coincided with the U.S. winning jurisdiction over the Philippine Islands. While literature scholars have argued back and forth about whether the poem warns of the dangerous responsibilities, as well as exalting the growth of empires, it represents the imperialist attitudes of the turn of the century.
What does this have to do with The Jungle Book? Well, Kipling’s work of 6 years prior carries similar patronizing attitudes about less developed cultures. The commentary of Orientalism, or Eastern cultures like India being exotic and primitive and needing the benefits of Western Civilization, is pervasive in the original books. Mowgli, who is an Indian human boy, has to be taught the laws of the jungle by the animals who inherently have superior knowledge and therefore think Mowgli is inferior. The animals could be seen as a representation of the Imperial British colony within the primitive India.
7. KING LOUIE IS WIDELY SEEN AS A RACIST CARICATURE
The Ape King Louie was never a character in Kipling’s Jungle Book. It seems clear that Disney created the character to make the monkey abduction scene a little more interesting and fun as a show-stopping number. Unfortunately, the character’s voice and presentation tread on a few toes.
While most of the animals in the jungle spoke British or American English, King Louie is the only animal in the film to speak in jive-talk. Disney was even originally going to have the legendary (black) Louis Armstrong as the voice of the character, but instead went with another famous musician, Sicilian-American Louis Prima. The fact that King Louie wants to become a human by unlocking the secret of “man’s red fire” only reinforces the original commentary that primitive Black or Indian cultures needed the advancements of Western cultures.
6. THE VULTURES IN THE DISNEY 1967 VERSION ARE BASED ON THE BEATLES
Liverpool Accents? Check. Mop-top cuts falling in their eyes? Check. Harmonizing melody? Check! These vultures are based on the Beatles, who were just hitting their stride in the late 60s. Supposedly the Beatles manager Brian Epstein approach Walt Disney Studios to have the band appear in the film and the Disney animators designed the characters based on them.
The Fab Four British Quartet were even asked to voice the characters that they inspired. John Lennon was the one who apparently rejected the idea. So alas, Disney would not get one great Jazz voice in Prima and one great pop voice in the Beatles in one movie. When the Beatles dropped out, the vultures’ song was rewritten as a barbershop quartet instead.
5. DISNEY’S 2016 LIVE ACTION JUNGLE BOOK HAS A PERFECT SUPPORTING VOICE CAST
Bill Murray’s comedic background is the perfect fit for the easy going Baloo. Ben Kingsley has the cultured British aura that makes him well suited to play Bagheera, Mowgli’s guardian and mentor. If you’ve ever seen Luther or Pacific Rim, you know that few actors working today command as much natural presence as Idris Elba. In a role like Shere Khan, he could be positively fearsome.
Scarlett Johansson has proven to have an easily recognizable and versatile voice. In Her, she gave a seriously compelling and nuanced performance through just her voice. Her character was a disembodied artificial intelligence, as opposed to an animated creature that will work in concert with her vocal performance like in the upcoming Jungle Book.
Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o each have respectable experience with voice acting or performance capture and recognizable voices to boot. It’ll be interesting to hear them as a maternal and paternal pair as Akela and Raksha. Not to mention Christopher Walken as King Louie.
4. IT SHOULD BE A BREAK OUT PERFORMANCE FOR NEEL SETHI AS MOWGLI
Sethi will be the first live action actor to play Mowgli that’s actually a kid since Brandon Baker in The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story in 1998. Both Disney’s 1994 live action film and Korda’s 1942 live action film had adult actors. Although admittedly, each movie’s character of Mowgli was an adult, the stories about Mowgli in The Jungle Book upon which the animated Disney movie was based are meant to take place when Mowgli is a child. So it’s cool to see Disney give the part to a young Indian American actor of appropriate age.
Sethi’s only other listed film credit in IMDb is for a short film ‘Diwali‘ in 2013. Being the only character who’s physically present on screen, it’ll be interesting to see how Sethi performs the role. Will Mowlgi be precocious, overconfident and out of place like he was in the animated version?
3. JON FAVREAU SHOULD BRING GREAT ACTION AND A GREAT SENSE OF TONE AND SETTING
As the trailers have pitched us, this live action Jungle Book iteration comes to us from director Jon Favreau. He’s undoubtedly most famous for directing the first two Iron Man movies for Marvel. It might not sound like the most obvious background you’d want for a technology-in-concert-with-voice driven adaptation of a lighthearted Disney classic.
However, the trailers have made it seem like this version is fully realizing the awe and suspense of a young boy being reared in the Indian Jungle. If you were Mowgli, the jungle would seem sprawling and the animals would seem larger than life.
Jon Favreau also has Cowboys and Aliens on his resume to prove his action chops, as well as the 2005 children’s fantasy adventure Zathura and the more intimate, mundane, character driven experience of movies like Chef. Favreau could bring just the right combination of sweeping adventure and real character moments that ‘The Jungle Book’ needs.
2. RICHARD SHERMAN IS REARRANGING SOME MUSIC FROM THE DISNEY ANIMATED CLASSIC
Richard and Robert Sherman were one of the most prolific song writing duos in movie history. They wrote music for plenty of animated and live action Disney movies including Mary Poppins, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Slipper and the Rose, Charlotte’s Web and, of course, The Jungle Book.
No song from the movie brings The Jungle Book to mind like “Bear Necessities.” We’ve heard passages from the new version of the song in the trailer and we’ve heard Baloo whistling it while coasting down the river, just like in the animated classic. Richard Sherman himself has returned to rearrange this classic Disney song and he’s writing new songs for the film as well. According to Favreau, there won’t be as many songs as in the 1967 animated version, but they will be spaced throughout at appropriate moments.
1. WARNER BROTHERS HAS A LIVE ACTION JUNGLE BOOK IN THE WORKS WITH ANDY SERKIS DIRECTING
Andy Serkis has become world renowned for his pioneering work in performance capture in movies. It turns out Warner Brothers will have Serkis directing his own adaptation of the Jungle Book with some state of the art performance capture technology. We’ll probably have to wait at least until a trailer to see exactly what that means, but Serkis is assembling his own impressive cast.
Serkis himself will play Baloo. Not necessarily a role you’d expect him to fit to but he’s still a versatile actor. The rest of the cast includes Christian Bale as Bagheera, Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan and Cate Blanchett as Kaa. Eye-catching choices in their own right. The cast also includes a few characters from Kipling’s book that never appeared in the Disney versions, like Tom Hollander as Tabaqui the Hyena.
Serkis seems to be going for a more faithful adaptation, whereas Disney’s new live action film is working off of their own animated classic.
Perhaps Disney’s new movie will acknowledge some of the Jungle Book’s controversial history, even if it’s subtle and only detectable by the most learned viewers. But even with lighter, children-focused films, the more you know, the more ways you can appreciate a movie. We’ll see how it measures up to the original and how it stands as it’s own fantastic adventure.