I have gotten tired of my 13 year old brother repeatedly asking me “Wait, why didn’t you like Jungle Book again?”
Here. Here is why I didn’t like Jungle Book again.
It all starts with Rudyard Kipling who is an imperialist racist piece of trash! For those who dont know, Kipling was a British white man raised in India at the height of the British Raj. He then wrote several books and poetry that were supposed to reflect his “love” for India but came out drenched in white supremacy and a serious case of white savior-ism. In a poem entitled “The White Man’s Burden” (already off to a brilliant start, no?!) Kipling broods for seven stanzas about the grief British colonizers face having to wrangle all those savages and civilize them into human beings.”Take up the white man’s burden…To wait in heavy harness…Your new-caught, sullen peoples/Half-devil and half child.”. This was used as a guideline for how the British should manage the newly conquered and enslaved Phillipino people.
When he wrote jungle book in 1894, the same problematic tropes carried over and made their way into the 1968 movie as well. But a lot of this racist garbage can be chalked up to the time period and the general worldwide epidemic of stupidity and ignorance. Therefore my qualms are about the modern adaptation of the Jungle Book, which has no excuse to be as backward as it is. And yet:
For starters, the fact that this is a movie that meant to celebrate India and yet boasts a cast of white actors who don’t speak any Indian languages in the movie is unbelievable already. In response to this, one might argue: “This is Hollywood! Why would they make a movie in an Indian language or place an emphasis on a culture that isn’t American?”. I think this can be resolved with the opposite notion that reflects common sense: why would a movie about India be in English and not cast any indians? It is a primitive and nonsensical argument to think that one country cannot represent another without displacing the former’s culture and native traits. In the same vein, America (or rather white people) seems to be the only members of film industries that repeatedly use white actors and the english language to represent other cultures. The phenomenon of whitewashing cultures, using blackface, brownface and yellowface runs rampant in Hollywood with racist character portrayals going all the way back to the beginnings of the film industry such as the asian man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s played by Mickey Rooney and continues to this day with Emma stone, a white actress portraying Allison Ng who is of Hawaiian and Asian decent, in the movie Aloha.
To boot, no other film industry in the world uses its own nationality to represent another. For example, India would not make a movie about an American baseball team using an all Indian cast speaking Hindi. It just wouldnt make sense. So why do we accept this ridiculous treatment of other cultures in Hollywood? The new Jungle Book movie does just this and goes a step further by removing all cultural identity from the story, as director Jon Favreau proudly admits: “I think that whatever cultural or social metaphors there was in there, were a bit lost on me. As with Alice in Wonderland … there’s a lot more cultural significance to them. Only the enduring, mythic, simpler aspects that are more obvious to the younger audience are what seems to endure.” Of course, the white heterosexual American man can’t relate to a movie grounded in its Indian setting that is vital to the storyline so just rip it out! And while you’re at it throw in some Indian terminology but make sure you completely butcher the pronunciation which would have taken a 5 second google search to verify. The word for “monkey people”, which is “Bander Log” is pronounced phonetically instead of (bun-ther-lohg) and Ammi, the word for mother is said with an accent on the a instead of the m. Minor issues, as it is only the main language of the country the movie is set in and only about two-sevenths of the world population speaks it, no big deal right?
While the concept of an Indian story that was only popular when it was written by a white British man during the time India was being enslaved by Britain is heinous enough, the new Jon Favreau adaptation is ostensibly worse with respect to Indian identity. That is, it has none at all. Neel Sethi, the 12 year old indian american boy who plays Mowgli is exactly like his character; a 12 year old american kid. There is no emphasis on his heritage and any indication that this is set in India was ripped away, making it actually more similar in storyline to Tarzan than the original Jungle Book. The ending scene in the 1968 version where Mowgli returns to his village after being allured by a pretty village girl dressed in traditional indian attire (indicates some cultural identity), is replaced with a dramatic fight scene ending in Sher Khan’s death while Mowgli stays put in the jungle. In defense of this change, the director explains that he didnt want Mowgli to “reject the jungle” just because of a “siren’s call” from the young girl singing at the end. This felt like a huge oversimplification of the original ending where Mowgli is not manipulated by the little girl’s song rather, the girl is a metaphor for Mowgli reconnecting with mankind. But I guess that one flew over Favreau’s tiny head.
Even ignoring the glaring cultural insensitivity of this movie, it is technically a failure as well. I realize this was a different take on the original but I cannot help compare it to the 1968 version that was easy going, aesthetically gorgeous in a way only manual animation can be and most importantly it had characters that were nuanced in personality. Although the CGI of the 2016 film was beautifully done in its own right, it had no business in a children’s story about a little boy who talks to animals. Simply put, a live action rendition of a movie that is supposed to be funny and light hearted came out to be overly dramatic and violent. The CGI became its own character and overshadowed the real cast by turning them into one-sided caricatures of their original selves. Sher Khan in the 1968 film was a nuanced villain who was highly narcissictic while maintaining the charisma and charm of a con artist. He was even funny! Remember “Go ahead. I’ll give you a head start” before chasing after Mowgli, his mortal enemy standing right in front of him. It would have been so easy to take him out, but true to his hunter’s nature Sher Khan insists on playing cat and mouse and cracking jokes. It is these little details that were totally missing from Sher Khan’s 2016 character. There, he is simply an evil villain without a shred of personality and the plot is honestly a snoozefest because of him.
Moving onto Kaa who is unrecognizable in the newer movie, literally and figuratively; for some reason, Kaa is enormous as is King Louie, and even Baloo to a degree. This made no sense and only served to make all of these characters menacing villains which brings me back to my point about the one-sidedness.Kaa is portrayed as a woman in this version, and a harrowing seductress complete with a raspy bedroom voice at that. It is a strange tone for a children’s movie and seeing as Kaa’s screentime was all of 3 minutes long , maybe the director didn’t love it either? Coming back to King Louie, who in the original is a jealous, uncooth and overall hilarious King of the monkeys (albeit a horribly obvious caricature of black people stemming from its similarity to blackface) is reduced to a cheap imitation of The Godfather played by none other than Christopher Walken and his thick Brooklyn/mafia accent. You just can’t make this stuff up.
All in all, Jungle book in any form sucks. The 1968 one sucked but the new Jungle Book sucked too and it was stripped of all of its cultural identity which should be unacceptable at any time but especially in 2016. Basically 1968 Jungle Book is like your racist old grandma that hates “the blacks” and you can’t talk her out of it but you, as a millenial living in the age of #BlackLivesMatter should know better.
Interview I reference in this essay: http://www.ign.com/articles/2016/04/17/director-jon-favreau-explains-the-big-change-hes-made-to-the-jungle-book