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Through the Jungle
by Richard Bowden
Criticising The Jungle Book (1969) - or taking to task other Disney ‘classics’
- is seen as akin to heresy in some quarters. Even such a blatantly racist vehicle
like Song Of The South is waved through (and in fact appeared on BBC-tv
recently in a morning slot). After all, it's just for children, and harmless enough,
right? Wrong - it's the things that are 'just for kids' which are often the most
insidious. It's when misty-eyed memory and adult nostalgia can prevent a calm
assessment of what's on offer and how dated or questionable a favourite can be. Fear
of 'reading too much into it' precluding critical engagement.
The Jungle Book for many remains a favourite amongst the studio’s
animated output. The characterisation is bold and colourful, the songs
are memorable, the music is evocative and apt, the plot well paced and
structured. The animation is vivid, even if in my humble opinion not outstanding
(particularly when compared to the earlier triumphs of Fantasia and
Snow White), but still perfectly adequate.
Why then the hesitation amongst those who might welcome it
with open arms? The tint of racism is one major stumbling block, one
frequently commented on by critics. There’s something about the
characterisation in The Jungle Book, whether consciously contrived or not,
that gets the liberal antennae twitching. Louis Prima, although Italian,
sings like a black and his monkey-man ("I wanna be like you...") routine is
rather disturbing. The 'jungle-bum' Baloo speaks for his stereotypical jive-talking
self. In contrast to these ‘types’, creatures with dignity and power, like Shere
Khan or Bagheera, tend to have upper class 'English' accents clearly implying
class and authority.
Closely following on this question mark follows the question of women -
or rather the absence of them as power figures. How many strong
women can you think of in Disney films that aren’t virgins, witches, or
harridans? Mowgli belongs to the long line of Disney orphans, and merely
encounters one potential father figure after another. The only exception to this,
the elephant Colonel Hathi's wife, remains in vaguely mutinous isolation. When
a female of the man–cub’s own species finally appears at the end of the film,
she is diminished, housework orientated and apart from singing singularly bereft
of conversation. What we are left with a boy’s paradise, the forest as male
playground, one created by the animators for jokey bonding and Mowgli's rite of
passage - a scheme entirely characteristic of Disney’s handling of material.
This brings us to a third accusation against Disney and The Jungle Book:
'species-ism'. Cutsie anthropomorphism is such a common occurrence in the studio's
output that it seems weirdly natural and all of a piece here. Indeed, so
used are we to this way of showing nature that sometimes we forget what
we know must be the truth. The Jungle Book presents a ‘natural’ world,
like all of his others, where animals are treated as objects or as
'people'. They have no species life of their own, they are just objectified for the
mimicry of humanity. The ideal jungle for Uncle Walt is one socially
conservative and whimsically kind hearted, where no creature need be
considered at all except in human terms, and everyone knows his place.
Nature, normally 'red in tooth and claw', sings a comic song for its
living, and then is divided into a facetious social system of character actors.
And what of Mowgli's journey, from animal kingdom to man-village,
from childhood to the brink of manhood? At first sight it seems to be a
rite of passage, a period of trial which brings him to some sort of
maturity. But Mowgli actually learns very little. All Baloo teaches him is
how to eat fruit without worrying about the little unneccesary
issues in life. His much-anticipated confrontation with the tiger Shere
Khan at the end springs more from ignorance and stubborness than any
acquired sense of self-preservation, let alone wisdom. Mowgli makes
some temporary friendships, grows dewy eyed at his first sight of a
female...and that's about it. As a moral journey, it is a failure. (A
similar vagueness attends Pinnochio's 'education' where the lessons of hard-won
experience are overruled by the Good Fairy's largesse.) If The Jungle
Book intends to provide a moral growth of some sort during Mowgli's
procession through the undergrowth, it fails.
Millions have enjoyed Disney's classic before, and will do so in future.
But at least facing some of the issues raised, in particular through a
critical look at the characteristic reworking of original material, will
make the walk through the jungle more interesting.
The above article was previously published on the Internet Movie Database.
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