The Walt Disney Company has long been a creative institution with a penchant for telling family-friendly stories through the mouths of talking (and often, singing) animals. Generations of Americans have grown up with their favorite anthropomorphic characters from such classics as Bambi, The Rescuers, and Ratatouille. One of the most beloved musically driven titles in the Disney catalog is 1967’s The Jungle Book—a lively animated version of the series of short stories by British writer Rudyard Kipling.
Recently, Disney released a live-action version of Kipling’s children’s classic, which has been dominating the box office since its release:
The story is simple: an orphaned boy named Mowgli is raised by a pack of wolves, and eventually must do battle with the evil tiger that killed his (human) father and now seeks his demise as well. Along the way, Mowgli’s friends—Baloo the Bear and Bagheera the Panther—attempt to help their fish-out-of-water protégé find his proper place in the world.
Directed by Jon Favreau (Elf, Iron Man, Chef), and featuring the compelling voice-over work of Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, and Idris Elba, among others, this Jungle Book is a technological masterpiece that captures much of the mystery, danger, and majesty of Kipling’s stories and their subtropical setting. Nearly every character seen onscreen, save the young boy portraying the protagonist, is the product of masterful CGI work.
But this new iteration of the Jungle Book also delves deeper into Kipling’s original stories than earlier versions—and as result, has found itself mired in accusations of racism and colonialism.
At its core, Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book is a collection of stories about misfits and outsiders intent on proving that they are more than capable of surviving the harsh environments in which they find themselves. Mowgli is a human boy lost in a dangerous jungle who, thanks to the kindness and mercy of a handful of loyal pals, is able to survive among even the wildest of beasts; Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a brave mongoose willing to risk his life to protect the human family that has welcomed him into their home and hearts; The White Seal—Kotick—is a rare, Albino seal that tirelessly (and thanklessly) searches for a new home for his fellow creatures where they can be safe from hunters. These are positive, uplifting messages of the type that any sane parent would want their kids to absorb and embrace.
But there is a darker side to Kipling’s legacy—one that some bloggers have been only too happy to remind us of in recent weeks. In a post titled, “How Disney’s New Jungle Book Subverts the Gross Colonialism of Rudyard Kipling,” Katy Waldman of Slate had the following to contribute to the conversation:
Well, Kipling was certainly a racist f**k—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.
One would have to guess that the Disney Corporation and director Jon Favreau did not set out to promote imperialism, colonialism, or disrespect for those who have suffered under the yoke of foreign rule—but words and ideas and stories do matter.
So what’s a conscientious, free society to do with such controversial, beloved stories? Am I contributing to 19th century crimes against humanity by singing the ballads of Baloo and King Louie while taking my morning shower? Should we start banning books and movies that Slate bloggers find offensive to their delicate sensibilities (on behalf of the ancestors of strangers half a world away)? Ought we to put F-bomb-laced warnings of “Pro-Colonialism Propaganda Contained Within!” on movie posters?
Of course not. Nor, unless you are a politically correct killjoy, should you avoid taking your kids to see a movie whose origin story is tied to a racist, imperialist past. Instead, use the opportunity to talk about Kipling and the historical circumstances that inspired Mowgli’s fictional adventures (Hey! Teachable moment!). Unlike politically correct handwringing, these kinds of conversations might actually succeed in conveying to a younger generation a sense of the challenges faced by others in the past—as well as an appreciation of the progress we have made as we look ahead to the future.