Only a PC Killjoy Could Hate the New ‘Jungle Book’

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.

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11 responses to “Only a PC Killjoy Could Hate the New ‘Jungle Book’

  1. Oh, and King Louie is LOUIS (pronounced “Louie”) PRIMA, who a wonderfully gifted musician. Little Miss Doo-Doo-Mouth didn’t get much right in her adolescent shriek.

  2. Kipling’s novel Kim portrays “a portrait of brave British spies and slavish, dark-skinned Buddhists”? Which edition did that idiotic reviewer read? Because Kipling’s love for India shines through every single PAGE of that novel. Anyone who can read his love letter to India as a racist, imperialist screed has no heart in their chest.

  3. The Jungle Book has been a handbook for scouting for boys for 100 years because it is about “How to Be a Man,” i.e. the animals, who are decidedly not human, teach the boy how to be something they can never be: a man, an “endangered species” as one character anachronistically and comically says in the new film.

  4. “Am I contributing to 19th century crimes against humanity by singing the ballads of Baloo and King Louie while taking my morning shower? ”

    Only in the minds of the insane. The past is past – we can learn from it, or we can ignore it – but nothing, NOTHING we can do can affect it. So condemn or condone what they did and thought – it’s still going to exist.

    All we can try to do is do better by contemporary standards – and understand that what we think is right and proper now will likely be seen as antiquated and ridiculous in another hundred years.

  5. Quote: “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…”

    Ranting about a book without reading it is apparently very politically correct at Slate. One of the major plots of Kipling’s tale is Kim’s love for and respect for his other-worldly Buddhist priest. And it’s hard to call a book “racist” when its central character is a multi-racial boy who moves easily between India’s various ethnic groups. Even the goal of the spying is anti-imperialistic in the sense that the Brits in their “great game” are trying to keep out the Russians, whose meddling in Indian’s affairs would make that of the British pale into insignificance.

    Look around in Slate and its kin, and you’ll find that today the biggest bigots are those who claim most loudly to be opposing bigotry.

    –Michael W. Perry, oc-author of Lily’s Ride: Rescuing her Father from the Ku Klux Klan (a young adult novel set in 1870s North Carolina)

    1. I agree that “Kim” doesn’t portray slavish Buddhists. Kipling obviously loved India’s diversity. However, Kim is not multi-racial. Kipling makes it clear that he’s the orphaned son of an Irish soldier and his Irish wife.

    2. Furthermore, Kim is widely loved by English-speaking Indians today. It’s not without its problems, but Slate’s characterization of it is infantile.

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