How Disney's new Jungle Book subverts Rudyard Kipling's racism.

How Disney’s New ​Jungle Book Subverts the Gross Colonialism of Rudyard Kipling

How Disney’s New ​Jungle Book Subverts the Gross Colonialism of Rudyard Kipling

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
April 19 2016 3:48 PM

How Disney’s New ​Jungle Book Subverts the Gross Colonialism of Rudyard Kipling

Mowgli (Neel Sethi) and Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) in The Jungle Book.
Mowgli (Neel Sethi) and Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) in The Jungle Book.

Disney

Before Disney’s dazzling live-action update of The Jungle Book swung into theaters on Friday, some worried about how the film would negotiate Rudyard Kipling’s checkered legacy. Kipling, a Bombay-born Brit writing around the turn of the century, infamously penned a poem called “The White Man’s Burden.” (Takeaway: Noble Englishmen must subdue the subcontinent’s “sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child.”) “Reminder,” announced a headline on iO9 last week, “Rudyard Kipling Was a Racist Fuck and The Jungle Book Is Imperialist Garbage.”

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer.

Well, Kipling was certainly a racist fuck—look no further than his novel Kim for a portrait of brave British spies and slavish, dark-skinned Buddhists—but The Jungle Book, which Kipling wrote out of a Vermont cabin in 1894, doesn’t showcase his bigotry so much as his uncritical reverence for power. Might makes right mesmerized Kipling; the more ruthless the subjugation, the better. He loved the panther Bagheera with his liquid menace (“his jaws shut with a snap, for he did not believe in being humble”), the terrifying python Kaa, and most of all Mowgli, who commands fire and possesses a gaze the beasts cannot meet without flinching. You might wince at the subtext of these characters’ dominance—for Kipling, whites were born rulers as surely as tigers were born predators—or point out the author’s lack of pity for the weak. You might furrow your brow at the way the Indian villagers succumb to supernatural babble and suspicion. But as far as pure and explicit racism goes, Kipling’s novel scores lower than Disney’s 1967 movie, which introduced a great ape called King Louie (after Louie Armstrong) who sang minstrel songs about his desire to get civilized.

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Enter Jon Favreau. Befitting his career as an expert shaper of familiar material, he’s thoroughly domesticated the tale, creating a sweet, funny film in which peace and goodness defeat violence and cruelty, and characters succeed not by destroying others but by becoming fully themselves. (For his part, King Louie has renounced jive-talk and turned into Christopher Walken.) Mowgli, no longer Kipling’s lonely outcast, ends up uniting the jungle against a tyrant, the silky-voiced Shere Khan, a tiger who reveals his villainy by killing for sport and pitting the beasts against each other. “The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack,” the furred and feathered creatures of the jungle chant, the wrath of Khan proving no match for their harmonious teamwork. Having defeated Khan, Mowgli reintegrates seamlessly into the animal kingdom. The film leaves him reclining happily on a branch with Bagheera and Baloo. Meanwhile, the original Jungle Book ends with its hero looking for a home, “the jungle shut to me and the village gates shut … my heart is heavy with the things that I do not understand.”

This new Jungle Book is an heir not so much to Kipling’s original stories, which foreground the splendid isolation of Great Men, but to Disney’s The Lion King. A spunky young protagonist grows up in a flourishing and just land. He is exiled when a ferocious despot murders the lawful ruler. With the help of some goofy, good-hearted sidekicks, he learns to think outside the box and utilize his peculiar talents; then, summoned by duty and a mystical sense of the rightness of things, he returns to establish the yearned-for peace. (Also, there are warthogs and elephants and a symbolic rock.)     

These lovely values lie pretty far afield from Kipling’s brutal magnificence. In Disney, the jungle is collaborative and interdependent. Predator and prey suspend their enmity in times of drought so that everyone can lap at the single remaining pool of water. But Kipling divides his jungle into rival “peoples”—the Jackal People, the Wolf People, the Snake People—all jockeying for advantage. The ecosystem is at once legalistic (“By the law of the Jungle he has no right,” Father Wolf says of Shere Khan, borrowing John Locke’s language) and alluringly savage, its shifting alliances barely outpacing a fundamental darkness. In the movie, Khan murders the lupine leader Akela because his pack tried to protect Mowgli. But in Kipling’s Jungle Book, it is customary for the young wolves to kill their alpha when his powers have waned. As the pack senses old Akela’s weakness, they begin to turn on Mowgli as well—the man-cub must fend them off with a burning branch and run away to a human encampment. Similarly, Scarlett Johansson’s sultry Kaa is a villain in the film, but in the stories he (he!) is a dangerous friend, a hypnotic epicure with a sadistic streak who teams up with Baloo and Bagheera to rescue Mowgli from the monkeys. Good and evil, in Kipling, entwine like creepers on a banyan tree.

Favreau softens Kipling’s severe know thy place mantra into a child-friendly to thine own self be true. The original Jungle Book’s monkeys sprang from an inferior stock: They were foolish and feckless, obsessed with trivial nonsense. “They have no leaders,” Baloo tells Mowgli. “They have no remembrance. They boast and chatter and pretend that they are a great people … but the falling of a nut turns their minds to laughter and all is forgotten.” But the Disney apes only offend insofar as they attempt to act like something they’re not. Their crime isn’t frivolous jabber and airy dreams. It’s living in an abandoned human temple and gathering human relics. Behold Favreau’s version of poetic justice: King Louie buried in an avalanche of stony ruins, only to re-emerge, hopping mad, in the closing credits. Kipling’s justice looks like hundreds of dumb, entranced monkeys sleepwalking helplessly into Kaa’s jaws.

If the movie turns animals into hippies, it also rewrites the book’s harsh and domineering vision of man. In the live-action Jungle Book (and elsewhere—Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent quoted Rousseau), the Disney philosophy of nature and humankind’s place in it is deeply Romantic. The tropical forest spreads over the land like a single varicolored organism, each animal species, including homo sapiens, playing a vital role. Mowgli’s human nature is good and pure; it is civilization that would corrupt him. Like any “noble savage,” he holds intuitive knowledge of the Eden through which he moves. When he fashions tools from vines and wood, Bagheera reprimands him not—as in Kipling’s text—because such “tricks” are unbeastlike but because they are specifically unwolflike. (The boy wishes to fit in with the pack.) At the end of the film, Mowgli finds his station in the animal kingdom without giving up his five-fingered ingenuity. (He even reaches a kind of sacred accord with the elephants, the otherworldly demigods of India, by rigging a pulley system to lift a calf out of a ravine.) He need not choose between expressing his authentic self and remaining in the jungle.

But Kipling imagines the world of beasts as an uneasy body politic, not a beautiful and organic whole. And humans, for him, have no place in this nation. Mowgli can assimilate for a time by obeying the jungle’s laws, but he will never really belong; dominance—an impulse to “civilize”—courses through his veins. That is why the animals cannot meet his eyes and why he must eventually leave the wolf pack, and the jungle, for his own kind. In Disney’s Jungle Book, Mowgli seeks out fire, the Red Flower, to nobly battle Shere Khan, but—after accidentally igniting the forest—theatrically hurls the torch into the water. The original Jungle Book has Mowgli wielding the Red Flower in triumph, to show his mastery over the beasts.

Of course, amid all the feel-good one-world progressivism of the new film, there is one character who believes that a manling has no business in the jungle. This vicious figure predicts (somewhat accurately) that the human will bring destruction and works tirelessly to kill him at any cost. He also rejects the comely, Disneyfied, interconnected spirit of nature, its romance of animals working together for the health of the land. He is an imperialist, a might makes right self-mythologizer, a richly attired gentleman whose polished British accent and fine manners conceal his ruthlessness. Shere Khan spends the new Jungle Book movie advocating for Kipling’s original vision, acting as a mouthpiece for the author himself.

Then he dies in a fire. That’s one way to handle the legacy problem.