Remaking Disney Classics

So, the trailer for the CGI remake of the Lion King came out recently. I’m not fond of it. The original film was perhaps one of my favourite films growing up. However, this string of ‘live-action’ remakes isn’t particularly compelling to me. However, there is one exception. The film that started this trend, 2016’s Jungle Book. I think that the changes made in this film are interesting when compared to the original source material. So, I’m about to explore the differences between the 2016 remake and its fifty-one (as of writing) year old predecessor to see how adapting something can transform both texts.

It should be noted that all the versions of the Jungle Book are based on a late nineteenth-century book by Rudyard Kipling, including the upcoming Mowgli that premieres on Netflix next week. Now I’ve never read the Jungle Book itself but it’s probably noteworthy that the book was released during a period in which the Scramble for Africa occurred. I’m aware that the book itself is more based in the Indian Jungle but an English fellow writing about a far-off wilderness in this time period probably wasn’t writing the most progressive text. The reason I mention all of this is that to highlight the idea that the text was created in a particular instance of time.

The 1967 Disney adaptation was not even the first film adaptation of the Jungle Book. It is probably the most well-remembered nowadays because of the Disney empire. So there are a couple things that stick out to me about the film that I want to highlight before I dig into the weeds. Kaa, the hypnotising snake is portrayed with largely the same voice as Winnie the Pooh. Oh bother. Also, the film moves at a clip. Ten minutes in, Mowgli has already left the wolf pack and encountered Kaa for the first time. King Louie was originally planned to be portrayed by Louis Armstrong and was a character who does not exist in the source text. However, even in 1967, they realised the implications of casting a black man as a monkey. Notably, the song that King Louie sings still has a jazz sound to it which is not a sound that originated with white musicians and is not the same as the rest of the soundtrack. There’s always baggage that carries through.

Comparing the animated film to the newer film there are two major aspects that I want to examine. First is the use of fire in the 2016 film. In the original film, Shere Khan fears fire and when lightning strikes a dead tree, Mowgli uses a burning branch and ties it to Shere Khan’s tail. Shere Khan flees in terror and is roundly defeated. In the new film, Kaa and King Louie both talk about fire as man’s invention that grants power but also destruction. There are probably a dozen allegories you could spin out of that. To me, it speaks to an industrial power that devastates natural environments. We might also see the fire as a ravaging force of colonialism although that allegory might fall into some murky territory as it positions those who are devastated by colonialism as animals which, not good.

Notably, in the climax of the film, Mowgli sneaks into the man village and steals a torch to use against Shere Khan. When he confronts Shere Khan, his use of fire is tied directly to becoming a man. Shere Khan has made a point in the film that Mowgli will grow and bring devastation to the jungle. That’s why Shere Khan hunts him in the new film. His motivations in the earlier Jungle Book are… unclear, maybe narcissism. In the new film, a spark from Mowgli’s torch sets the jungle on fire. Shere Khan uses this to show that he was right about Mowgli’s fate; that they would all suffer for transgressing. Shere Khan often talks about how allowing Mowgli into the jungle is a violation of the law of the jungle. Shere Khan wants Mowgli’s blood for this transgression.

Now, the reason I mention all of this is how different it is to the earlier film. In the animated film, many of our heroes speak about the fact that the village is Mowgli’s true home and that’s where he belongs. At the end of that film, Mowgli follows a girl into the village. In the new film, Shere Khan maintains the position that the heroes’ held previously as Mowgli protests that he should stay and only leaves to protect his surrogate family. At the end of the new film, Shere Khan dies and Mowgli decides to stay in the jungle. As noted in who upholds the natural order in each film, it’s interesting that the ending differs. This is why I wanted to talk about the two films. With the context of the original film, the new film commentates on its message. There is no natural order to things anymore. As long as the lawmakers acting in bad faith perish, then people can stay in the place that best for them. It’s an inverse message to the original texts and could only be significant if using the original text as a base. That’s why remakes should exist, to commentate on their predecessor. Somehow, I don’t think a film with twenty-five years distance can do that.


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