Evolution of Character – Mowgli

The name Rudyard Kipling brings up a lot of talk in the world of literature.  Often seen as one of the fathers of modern action adventure, whose work has inspired everything from Indiana Jones to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, his most notable contribution to the medium would largely be the theme of the conflict between civilization and the wild.  This juxtaposition is what defines most of his writing, and has led to him to be a widely discussed and sometimes controversial figure in literary circles.  Though Kipling is largely responsible for exposing the Western world to cultural traditions and folklore of exotic places like India and the Middle East, he also did so with a distinctly British point of view.  Having been born and raised in Colonial India during his early years, the land no doubt left an effect on him.  He was drawn to the geographical wonders of the subcontinent, and as a child he no doubt absorbed the many folk tales that were spoken about by the native Indians.  But, he was also of the belief that it was in the Indian people’s best interest to live under British rule.  His strong Imperialist views has often clouded modern perception of his work, and though he admires the nation and people of India very much in his writing, his naivete towards the cruelty that the Indian people endured under the British rule is still problematic.  Still, Kiplng’s influence is still felt in modern literature, as well as in cinema.  Many films have been made of his novels and short stories like Gunga Din (1939), Kim (1950) and The Man Who Would Be King (1975).  But none of his works has lent itself better to the big screen than the collection of short stories that he is probably best known for called simply enough The Jungle Book.

When people think of The Jungle Book, they probably think it tells the singular narrative that we’re all familiar with, but that’s actually not the case.  The famous story of the man-cub raised by wolves in the jungle is actually only about half of the entire book, taking up three of the book’s seven short stories.  The rest of The Jungle Book is filled with lesser known stories like Rikki Tikki Tavi, The White Seal, Toomi of the Elephants, and Her Majesty’s Servants.  But the first 3 stories are what people remember the most because they center on what is ultimately the most compelling character that Rudyard Kipling ever created; the man-cub named Mowgli.  It’s interesting that through the character of Mowgli, we see Kipling telling the most personal of stories and utilizing all the important themes that would define most of his work.  Like Mowgli, Kipling was an orphan raised in a strange land where he felt out of place, and likewise, he is caught between two colliding worlds, wanting to indulge his love of the exotic while at the same time staying loyal to Queen and Country.  It’s that theme of Freedom and Control clashing in the metaphor of Civilization and the Jungle that defines Mowgli’s journey and it makes him a compelling figure in fiction.  Though Kipling often paints his non-white characters in problematic broad strokes, he thankfully devotes a lot of love and care to Mowgli, whom he clearly identifies with even despite the racial differences.  And this treatment has helped Mowgli endure as a figure on the big screen, making his mark even today, over a hundred years after he made his debut on the page.  Like other articles in this series, I’ll be looking at some of the most notable interpretations of the character, and examine all the interesting ways he has evolved as a character over time.  So, let’s take a look at Rudyard Kipling’s boy of the wild and his long cinematic journey.

SABU in RUDYARD KIPLING’S JUNGLE BOOK (1942)

Though not the first cinematic re-telling of the story, coming after a string of long forgotten silent and single reel shorts, this lush Technicolor version would mark Hollywood’s first adaptation, and it’s one that very much helped to popularize the story for mainstream audiences.  Made by the Korda bothers, Zoltan and Alexander, this version is expectedly melodramatic and cheesy in the classic Hollywood extravaganza sort of way, but what is most interesting about it is the appropriate casting of an authentic Indian actor in the role of Mowgli.  Sabu Dastagir, who often went credited by the single name Sabu, was the first ever Indian movie star to gain international fame.  Discovered by the Korda brothers, he first appeared as the titular Elephant Boy (1937), which was also based on a short story from the Jungle Book.  It was with the lavish production of Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Baghdad (1940) that Sabu became a household name, and soon after, the Korda brothers saw fit to give him a starring vehicle in their next film based on the Mowgli stories of The Jungle Book.  Though Sabu, who was in his twenties at the time, may look a tad bit too old for the part, he still maintains a charming presence throughout the movie.  The movie treats his story more as a traditional action adventure, with none of the book’s more important themes explored, and less importance placed on the animal characters as well.  But, Sabu manages to carry the character along, giving him a dignified presence that normally wouldn’t have been given to a Indian character in a typical Hollywood epic of the time.  Had he not put such a strong, culturally authentic face to the character of Mowgli, we might have had a whole different cinematic history for this character, and that in itself made a big impact; both for the character and for the exposure of Indian people on film in general.

BRUCE REITHERMAN in THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967)

Like other famous fairy tales and fables, this was likely most people’s first exposure to the story of The Jungle Book.  The last film that Walt Disney personally worked on before his untimely death, this animated Jungle Book is in many ways the best possible medium for the story, while at the same time being the least faithful.  Animation made it possible for the interactions that Mowgli has with his animal companions to be fully realized, since it’s more natural in an animated film to have a talking bear or panther than it would in live action.  But, at the same time, Walt Disney made the risky choice of making The Jungle Book without using Kipling’s original story as the basis.  Instead, the movie is more of a showcase for the characters of the book, and not the actual plot itself.  And that works to it’s advantage.  Though it’s the least faithful, this Jungle Book has still become the most beloved, and that’s because the characters are so strongly defined.  For the first time, characters like Baloo the Bear, Bagheera the Panther, and Shere Khan the Tiger take the spotlight, all voiced by well known entertainers from the time.  Disney even added another character that fit well into this version named King Louis, an orangutan very heavily influenced  by his voice actor Louis Prima.  Even still, Mowgli emerges as a relatable character.  Though far more Americanized than Sabu’s interpretation, no doubt based on the casting of young Bruce Reitherman in the role (the son of the film’s director, Wolfgang Reitherman), he still retains a bit of the passion that Kipling had originally imagined for him in the book.  His touching, paternal relationship with Baloo is especially expanded upon here, which is an important factor that would play out significantly in future adaptations.  It may not be Kipling’s Mowgli, but this is one version of the character that no doubt remained a crucial part of his legacy.

RODDY MCDOWALL in MOWGLI’S BROTHERS (1976)

Only a decade after Disney made their version of The Jungle Book, famed former Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones took his own stab at adapting Kipling’s story.  This was actually one of three adaptations of the Jungle Book stories that Jones made in the mid 70’s, with animated shorts based on Rikki Tikki Tavi (1975) and The White Seal (1975) released before it.  Here, Chuck Jones adapts the first of the Mowgli short stories, called Mowgli’s Brothers, which chronicles Mowgli’s upbringing as part of a wolf pack as well as his first encounter with Shere Khan, his mortal enemy.  It’s short and sweet, done in that distinctive Chuck Jones style that he was continuing to refine with his independent studio.  The use of color and impressionistic backgrounds are really astounding to watch on screen.  But what is even more distinctive about this version is that it is a very earnest and faithful adaptation of Kipling’s version of the story.  This short film is far darker in tone than it’s Disney equivalent, and utilizes far more of Kipling’s own writing in it’s script.  The movie also dispense with a lot of character dynamics of Disney’s Jungle Book, instead focusing on Mowgli’s own coming of age, as well as his relationship with his adopted wolf mother.  The entire film is narrated by acclaimed actor Roddy McDowall, who also plays ever role except for Mother Wolf (played by the late, great voice actress June Foray).  McDowall brings a lot of intensity to the portrayal of Mowgli, especially in delivering his warning to Shere Khan at the finale, and captures the a strong sense of what the character on the page might be like fully realized.  It’s a briefly told version of the story, but one that is truer to it’s source than most of the others we’ve seen on the big screen.

JASON SCOTT LEE in THE JUNGLE BOOK (1994)

After many years existing in the medium of animation, Mowgli finally made a return to live action in this epic adventure version of the story.  Though it takes the setting and the characters from the original story, this version is nothing like what Kipling wrote.  It instead becomes a story about the effects of civilization coming into a once untamed jungle, and how this affects Mowgli, who himself is a creature of two worlds.  It’s more Jungle Book by way of Tarzan, and you might see more similarities with the latter than the former in this movie.  Which in a way is an interesting angle to take on the story of Mowgli.  How would this character interact with other human beings after living among wild animals all his life.  Can he learn to be civil, and in turn, is becoming civil really what Mowgli wants.  As to the portrayal of Mowgli himself in the movie, well, you first have to get over the fact that Mowgli is being played by a twentysomething Chinese American actor; I’m guessing that the filmmakers were clueless to the fact that Chinese and Indian are two completely different ethnicities.   But apart from this, Jason Scott Lee does make Mowgli a sympathetic hero, with plenty of charm and humor. In many ways, his performance is like an updated version of Sabu’s Mowgli, which is appropriate as the movie is very much a throwback to old Hollywood adventure films, only with slightly more depth and hindsight when it comes to the themes, which casts more skepticism over the idea of Imperialism.  Interestingly enough, this movie was made by Disney, though it carries no similarities with the animated original, standing pretty independently as it’s own retelling.  But of course, it wouldn’t be the last time Disney would revisit this tale.

KYUTA in THE BOY AND THE BEAST (2015)

Japanese anime has taken on the tale of the Jungle Book before, but with this recent film, they turn Kipling’s tale completely on it’s head.  The story has always been about a young boy taken out of civilization and raised in the wilds of the jungle, and The Boy and the Beast follows that same idea as well.  Only this time, the wild jungle is civilization, as the Mowgli-esque protagonist Kyuta is thrown into a world where all the people are anthropomorphized animals.  While stuck there, Kyuta befriends a gruff, warrior who just so happens to be a bear, who eventually takes the young boy under his wing and turns into a surrogate father.  It’s very much like the bond built between Mowgli and Baloo, only here the Baloo equivalent, named Kumatetsu, is strict and disciplined as opposed to carefree.  Kumatetsu and Kyuta form their bond in a very master and student way, typical of those who train in art of samurai combat.  It’s a very different take on these character types that what is found in The Jungle Book, but at the same time it’s very much in the same spirit.  Mowgli, like Kyuta, learn to be more humane and honorable because of his relationship to the animal kingdom, and that is very much the key to his development as a character.  The same applies when the world is populated by animals who act like humans.  It may be a loose interpretation of Kipling’s story, but the essential elements pertaining to the central protagonist are still there.  It’s also just interesting to see how this story plays out in a different cultural setting, with the jungles of India being replaced with feudal Japan, and the Mowgli and Baloo relationship explored more deeply than we’ve ever seen before. It may not be Kipling, but it does honor the spirit of the original story and offers up an example of how the same themes can work even within a different, and more fantastical setting.

NEEL SETHI in DISNEY’S THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016)

Despite having already made a live action version of The Jungle Book in 1994, Disney felt that it was time to revisit the story again, only this time sticking closer to the formula of their animated version.  This version of The Jungle Book was one of the earliest releases in a trend now dominating the production schedule at the Disney company of taking their animated classics and remaking them in “live action.”  It’s been a practice that has produced mixed results, with some of the movies either being passable or unwatchable.  Thankfully, this version, directed by Jon Favreau, falls more in the passable category, and this is largely due to the incredible, ground-breaking effects that helped bring it to life.  The entire movie, from the environments to the animals, was crafted using photorealistic CGI, and the only thing you see on screen that is 100% real is the actor portraying Mowgli.  And the overall effect is impressive, as is the cast that Favreau put together.  You have Bill Murray as Baloo (perfect choice), Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, and Christopher Walken of all people as King Louis.  And the animators all did an incredible job of believably bringing these characters to life with the actors voices matching the realistic movements of these animals.  Strangely enough, the one thing that doesn’t work as well in the movie is Mowgli himself.  Sure, Neel Sethi does a fine job, and he is authentically of Indian descent.  But, because they are working more off of the original animated version, this Mowgli isn’t so much out of place but rathr out of time.  He acts more like a typical American child of today than a boy raised in the jungle in the late Victorian era.  Because of this, he feels far removed from Kipling’s original Mowgli.  They even added a strange character trait that Mowgli is an inventor, which feels very out of place in this story.  Even still, the movie is an impressive visual feat, and the characters are still entertaining, including Mowgli.  It’s just not for purists of the original story, because it takes it’s cue from Disney’s own version of the story.

ROHAN CHAND in MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE (2018)

Strangely enough, while Disney was putting together their own live action version of The Jungle Book, Warner Brothers was also developing another version as well.  Directed by actor Andy Serkis, this version was intended to stick closer to the tone of Kipling’s original stories, while at the same time using the same photo-realistic animation to portray the various animals, all brought to life through motion capture technology.  Serkis himself would fill the role of Baloo, and a full all-star cast portrayed the many other iconic characters including Christian Bale as Bagheera, Cate Blanchett as Kaa the Snake, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan.  But, probably in response to the film’s darker tone, and the fact that Disney’s version performed so well as the box office, Warner Brothers got cold feet and ended up dumping the expensive production onto Netflix, where it premiered to surprising little fanfare.  And this is a shame in the long run because though it is a movie with several flaws, it may in fact have the best portrayal of Mowgli we’ve seen to date.  Here he’s played by a young Indian American actor named Rohan Chand who not only looks authentic, but he also plays the character appropriate to his time period.  This version of Mowgli really does capture what Kipling originally imagined, which is a child of two worlds, and how he comes to accept his place in the world.  Interestingly enough, the movie has the opposite strengths and flaws of the Disney version, where this version has a far superior portrayal of Mowgli and inferior depictions of all the animal characters.  There’s a reason why Disney chose to animate their animals as opposed to motion capture, because you can exaggerate expressions through animation.  Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle almost uses it’s motion capture too well, as it becomes distracting seeing Christian Bale’s mannerisms appear through the mask of a photo-realistic panther.  Even still, it’s a version of the story that will please many fans of the book, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of Mowgli, who has never been this faithfully adapted to the screen before.

Overall, Mowgli is not an easy character to correctly adapt to the big screen.  How does one imagine the life of a child raised by the jungle.  In many ways, this has been a story that has best lent itself to the medium of animation, as it allows for Mowgli to commune with the animals without feeling unnatural.  That’s probably why Disney’s multiple adaptations are so beloved, because they make the story about the community of the jungle that Mowgli is a part of, and lets the personalities of the characters be the thing that drives the story.  However, in doing so, it departs significantly from the original narrative that Rudyard Kipling wanted to tell.  Kipling was fascinated with the clashing of cultures that manifest through Mowgli’s own coming to terms with his own identity, and though his ultimate assessment that one should dominate over the other has turned problematic over the course of history, he nevertheless gave these themes resonance through his youthful hero.  Mowgli’s exoticness and boundless spirit has certainly helped him remain popular over the years.  No doubt the spirited, and groundbreaking performance of Sabu in the Korda classic helped to solidify him as an action adventure icon, and Disney’s version of the character has helped him retain a mainstream familiarity that has helped him live on in modern interpretations.  I certainly wish that more people knew about the Netflix film made by Andy Serkis, because it seemed to, more than any other version, try to portray the character more honestly than ever before.  It’s still there on the platform, so if you haven’t seen it yet, do it now.  Mowgli’s story is a complex one, and it’s great to see that even a hundred years later, he is still enjoying a healthy existence on the big screen.  Even more pleasing is the fact that his story has also transformed with the times, as it’s escaped Kipling’s own Imperialistic ideals and has instead been an effective tool of teaching young audiences about the people and culture of India and also a lesson about respect for the natural world.  In many ways, like Mowgli himself, the story of The Jungle Book has helped to bridge that divide between society and the wild, and in turn made the world more civilized by showing how all of these things have their own value.  Like Baloo the Bear says, at least in the Disney version, “Look for the Bear Necessities in life.”

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