In 2018, Andy Serkis’ The Jungle Book is set to be released: retelling Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 original that has seen numerous reincarnations. Whilst many facets of the story are revised and altered in each version, the core narrative still remains the same. Characters and symbolisms in the story have come and gone, yet still there is a retention of this narrative. As such the ideas of Kipling’s book and the original Disney animation consistently resurface.
To many, the version of The Jungle Book they have most connection to is the Disney version released in 1967. But what they often fail to recognize is the representations of race depicted throughout the film, as it was still associated with the ideas of the original. Kipling was born and raised in Colonial India, known most for his poem about the Philippine-American war “The White Man’s Burden”. Kipling’s original Jungle Book is filled with notions towards imperialism, segregation and generally promoting a colonialist ideology.
At the centre of the narrative Kipling tells is a rudimentary depiction: Mowgli as the British and the jungle as India. Around this is constructed the series of racially identifying differences projected through the anthropomorphic characters: and from there the imperialist notions. Richard Dyer’s notion in The Matter of Whiteness of equating ‘being white with being human’ and its effects to ‘secure a position of power’ have an even more signified meaning in The Jungle Book’s context.
“We of the jungle have no dealings with them. We do not drink where the monkeys drink; we do not go where the monkeys go; we do not hunt where they hunt; we do not die where they die.”
The character Baloo, from the original collection of short stories, clearly defines a message of segregation. Kipling has the character Baloo represent his own imperialistic views: giving descriptions of the “monkey people” as lacking culture of their own, any order or leadership, and reduced to mimicking others. Baloo pushes a segregation message onto Mowgli, and describes the monkey’s as the worst of the animals. Furthermore Mowgli is very much in control of the animals within this world, as by starring them down he can control them.
“They have no law. They are outcasts. They have no speech of their own, but use the stolen words, which they overhear when they listen, and peep, and wait up above in the branches. Their way is not our way. They are without leaders.”
Following this representation in the book, the 1967 Disney film not only continues this discourse of connotations but even reverses certain aspects: ‘some representations are idealized and sentimentalized rather than degraded, while remaining stereotypical’ (Hall, 1997).
The character King Louie, not in the original book by Kipling, is described as a clear imitation of Louis Armstrong: both playing the trumpet and with “his gravelly voice, his use of jive talk, hipster slang, and his style of “scat” singing.” (The Aporetic)
The voice of King Louie was Louis Prima: a musician from New Orleans that could be seen as a Louis Armstrong imitator. Other than singing “I Wanna Be Like You” to the affect of Kipling’s representation of the monkeys wanting to imitate a civilized culture, Disney have added a further connotation with the casting of Louis Prima. A musician who himself imitated Louis Armstrong, Prima is portraying a similar fetishization to that of the colonial era and Kipling’s original depiction.
Retold with several iterations, The Jungle Book depicts varying version of what is still at the foundation a colonial era narrative.
- Stuart Hall, Chpt.4 “The Spectacle of the ‘Other’ ”. (London,1997)
- The Aporetic, The Strange Career of King Louie, 27 March 2012.
- Medium, Racist Tropes in Disney, 22 April 2017.
- i09, Rudyard Kipling, 14 April 2016.
- LitReactor, Jungle Book Racism, 24 April 2016.
Disney, Jungle Book
Disney Wiki, King Louie