Take up the White Man’s burden And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better, The hate of those ye guard—
The cry of hosts ye humour (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:—
“Why brought he us from bondage, Our loved Egyptian night?”
-Rudyard Kipling, White Man’s Burden
A hundred and seventeen years after its initial publication, literary critics continue to debate the meaning of Jungle Book-author Rudyard Kipling’s infamous poem White Man’s Burden. Occasioned by the American acquisition of the Philippines, it could just as easily be read as either biting satire critiquing colonialism or a sober-minded examination on the expansion of empire and the high cost for those who undertake it. Other works of Kipling’s such as Gunga Din reveal a deep reverence and respect for native peoples, suggesting a sardonic insincerity behind Burden’s text. But per Poe’s Law, the exhortations in the poem mirrored real American attitudes and ambitions towards imperialism so closely that it is treated sometimes still with seriousness by scholars and layman alike.
Such ambiguity does not exist in Disney’s current live action-adaptation of their previous animated adaptation of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. This copy-of-a-copy contains as much creativity and nuance as its genealogy implies. It takes up the Mosaic metaphor utilized by Kipling in the abovementioned stanza from Burden and unsubtly subverts such in presenting an altogether misanthropic message about modern man’s relation to the natural world. The Moses played in the poem by the powers of Europe and America is instead instanced in the movie in Mowgli, himself a babe in a basket belonging to a people hated and hunted by the pharaohic Khan (as fitting a name for a tyrant as ever there was).
Shere Khan abhors Mowgli for being a Man, for being by nature partially alien to Nature. Herein lies the central conflict: for Mowgli to accept his humanity by utilizing fire (and all that such implies, including both its creative and destructive potential), or to reject his humanity and affirm his animality. In both Kipling’s short story and Disney’s animated film, Mowgli chooses the former, defeating with fire his feline foe and immediately subsequent choosing to enter human civilization. Such is not merely kind being with kind, but an ascension from savagery to society. In the cartoon this is more explicit still, with Mowgli enamored by the visage of a village virgin like the beauty of Beatrice uplifting Dante’s soul.
The Prometheus parallels bear mention here as well. As the Titan stole fire from his fellow gods in order to bring its civilizing power to the animals known as Man, so too does Mowgli steal fire from his fellow Man in order to bring its civilizing power to the rest of animal-kind (firstly to fight Shere Khan, liberation from tyranny being every bit the mark of civilization as technology). Khan’s dialoged in the film further references the myth of Epimetheus, critiquing Man’s lack of claws, horns, or fangs, which according to Plato prompted Prometheus’ pyric pillage.
And herein lies the film’s misanthropy: in seeing the inhabitants of the jungle fear him as a Man more than Khan as a tyrant when the former first wields fire, Mowgli extinguishes his torch, casting away once and for all his humanity. In defeating Shere Khan and even after, he continues to utilize primitive technology in the form of vine ropes and stone knives, but the film takes pains to demonstrate that such “tricks” are a means of making men equal to other animals instead of elevating Man above Nature. It is particularly telling that Mowgli in this version alone makes no exodus from the jungle to human society in the end, instead returning to the wolf pack in which he was raised. Such is the central thesis of the film, that humans are one animal among many, that the twin fires of civilization and technology are wholly destructive forces, and that the human animals should return to a state of equilibrium with the natural world, not wholly bereft of technology but certainly bereft of the divine spark of specialty which myths such as Moses and Prometheus put forth.
Beyond such cynicism the film still has problems aplenty. Chief among these is its reliance on a child protagonist acting against a cast that is otherwise entirely computer generated characters. While the animation on such creatures is for all intents and purposes fully photorealistic, never taking the viewer out of the experience, Neel Sethi as Mowgli is given a task nearly as monumental as Tom Hanks in Castaway or Matt Damon in The Martian; given his youth and inexperience it comes as no surprise that he fails at such an enormous endeavor. Virtually no one that age could have succeeded given the nature of the task, and it comes as a shock that Disney ever greenlit the project knowing it would necessarily hinge on a single child lead.
Moreover, the film leans too heavily on nostalgia in certain sequences and too little in others. Particularly, characters break into songs on two occasions in an otherwise non-musical. Baloo’s rendition of “The Bear Necessities” is organic enough, but King Louis suddenly singing “I Wanna be Like You” utterly deflates Walken’s the otherwise menacing mafioso. On the other hand, Phil Harris as the voice of Baloo remains so iconic even fifty years after the fact that even a veteran voice actor such as Bill Murry cannot quite make the role his own. Similarly Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, which, while the previous portrayal was not particularly iconic, it was decisively less sultry and more serpentine. And while Raksha is too bit a part to matter much, Nyong’o’s voice work here gives more credence to the reports that much of Maz Kanata’s role in The Force Awakens was cut due to the actress’ poor performance.
The Jungle Book is the first flop of 2016. It is utterly unnecessary given Disney’s more serviceable animated version and Andy Serkis’ more promising upcoming adaptation (given the voice talent attached). Moreover, the prospect of a live-action Jungle Book at all is due to its subject matter ill-conceived, as the execution here proves. Yet worse than moving the story from a medium more suitable to one decisively less so, crucial aspects of the original have been altered so as to produce a work which slyly subverts and inverts it. The Jungle Book is not an adaptation, but a refutation and repudiation of a work which merited neither.