The Many Lives of ‘The Jungle Book’

Drew Dietsch
TV Movies
TV Movies Disney

In 1894, English author Rudyard Kipling collected together a number of his stories into a volume called The Jungle Book. These tales (as well as the ones collected in The Second Jungle Book) were moral fables that drew upon Kipling’s time spent in India as a child and later as an adult. Kipling’s stories have been adapted numerous times in almost every media known to man, and will be again when Disney releases their newest film on April 15. In honor of that release, we’re looking at a few standout filmed adaptations of Kipling’s incredibly influential work.

Jungle Book (1942)

The first cinematic rendition of The Jungle Book came from Hungarian filmmaking brothers Alexander and Vincent Korda. Setting a precedent when it came to being fairly unfaithful to the source material, this 1942 Technicolor epic is certainly a movie of its time. Though the acting leaves something to be desired, there’s plenty of fun to be had in the vibrant sets and the ambition on display. Most impressive (though certainly frowned on today) is the use of the different live animals: cobras, panthers, and tigers (“Oh my!”) all get in on the action, and it gives the film an outdated charm. The film has lapsed into public domain, so feel free to give it a watch if you are curious enough.

The Jungle Book (1967)

Easily the most recognizable version on this list, The Jungle Book was the last film to be produced during Walt Disney’s lifetime. The movie itself is more a series of vignettes than a cohesive story, but that seems appropriate considering the somewhat disjointed nature of Kipling’s original works. The film became memorable for its energetic soundtrack, particularly Baloo the Bear‘s song “The Bare Necessities.” While this is the version that Disney will be drawing inspiration from for their new film, it’s also been the inspiration for other Disney ventures, including the popular ’90s television cartoon TaleSpin. An undeniable classic that will make you forget about your worries and your strife (yeah, man).

Adventures of Mowgli (1967-1971)

jungle book russian

In the same year that Disney released their hit musical, the first of a five-part series called Maugli (or Adventures of Mowgli in most territories) was released in the Soviet Union by Soyuzmultfilm, the most influential animation studio in Russian history. These shorts are more in line with the somewhat darker tone present in Kipling’s stories. The five shorts were cut together for an eventual American release, featuring classic ham actor Charlton Heston providing the narration. The American edit also makes a number of other changes that turns it into a very compromised version. The original Russian cartoons are worth checking out if just to compare and contrast them with the brighter and more widely palatable Disney version.

The Chuck Jones Cartoons (1975-1976)

rikki tikki tavi

Famous animator Chuck Jones crafted a trilogy of television specials based on three separate stories from The Jungle Book: “Mowgli’s Brothers”, “The White Seal”, and “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”. These three shorts are notable for sticking fairly close to their inspirations, and they don’t shy away from some of the darker elements present in the source material. If you only watch one, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” is easily the best of the bunch. With Orson Welles providing the voice of the villainous cobra Nag, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” stands out when compared to its somewhat lighter companions. After the original Disney adaptation, these cartoons are definitely the best way to get young viewers interested in these classic tales.

Jungle Book Shōnen Mowgli (1989)

Yes, The Jungle Book has even found itself adapted into a Japanese anime back in the late ’80s. Known simply as The Jungle Book in its English release, Jungle Book Shōnen Mowgli is clearly influenced by the light-hearted 1967 Disney version. With a total of fifty-two episodes, the anime was able to draw upon most of Kipling’s stories for ideas, but they are mostly undercut by the jaunty nature of the show. It was a success in its day, but time has mostly forgotten Jungle Book Shōnen Mowgli. For those who remember it, it’s a nice piece of nostalgia but not nearly as good as your childhood memory had made it out to be. At the very least, the Japanese version of the opening song is unbearably catchy.

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1994)

Disney’s first attempt at a live-action take on Kipling’s stories came in 1994 with this over-the-top version. Directed by Stephen Sommers — a director who would become synonymous with “over-the-top” cinema thanks to films like Deep RisingThe MummyVan Helsing, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra — this version has very little in common with the Kipling novel other than character names. The surprisingly illustrious cast includes Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), Lena Headey (Game of Thrones), and even Monty Python member John Cleese. More Indiana Jones than India-inspired fable, this version was fairly well-received at the time, but hasn’t really maintained the kind of fans that the animated Disney version continues to amass to this day. Maybe that partially has to do with the animals not talking in this version, but that’s just my guess.

The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli & Baloo (1997)

Only a few years after Disney’s live-action remake, TriStar Pictures tried their hand with their own Jungle Book film. Named The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli and Baloo — although it’s not an adaptation of Kipling’s novel of the same name — this version is a chore of a movie. Featuring lengthy sequences with no dialogue (again, the animals don’t talk), the entire film is also incredibly cheap looking and bland. This film was an enormous flop, making less than $160,000 during its opening weekend and not even $350,000 during its entire theatrical run. A forgotten bore of an adaptation that has been properly lost in the sands of time.

The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story (1998)

The ’90s proved to be one of the most prolific eras when it came to Jungle Book films, and Disney couldn’t help but crank out one more live-action version before the decade came to a close. The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story finally gives the animals their voices back (featuring SpongeBob Squarepants alums Brian Doyle-Murray and Clancy Brown), but this direct-to-video offering is like The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli and Baloo with a little more Disney pep in its step. Though there’s some lively fun to be had with the animal performances, this is another entry that’s understandably been relegated to bargain bin status.

Jungle Book: Origins (2017)


And before we leave, we’ll take a look at an adaptation of The Jungle Book that isn’t even out yet. Warner Bros will release Jungle Book: Origins in October of 2017, giving it a fair amount of space away from the new Disney version. Jungle Book: Origins will be a somewhat darker take on the material with Lord of the Rings actor Andy Serkis making his directing debut. Serkis will also be the motion-capture actor behind Baloo, and he’ll be joined by other motion-captured performances from Benedict Cumberbatch (Shere Khan), Christian Bale (Bagheera), and Cate Blanchett (Kaa).

Will audiences be excited about another Jungle Book film just a year after Disney’s new version? If time has proven anything, it’s that Kipling’s stories will continue to be brought to life in a variety of imaginative ways, and we will continue to absorb these stories for as long as we have stories.

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