Mowgli and Me

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Midway through 1967’s The Jungle Book, Baloo (the great gray bear voiced by radio fixture Phil Harris) and Bagheera (the black panther voiced by English character actor Sebastian Cabot) debate whether they should return their charge, Mowgli—a young boy raised by wolves after his parents meet some vague Disney fate—to civilization. “Baloo, birds of a feather should flock together,” sighs Bagheera. “You wouldn’t marry a panther, would you?” Baloo chuckles and nudges Bagheera: “I don’t know. Come to think of it, no panther ever asked me.”

Mowgli’s proverbial feathers are, of course, the source of The Jungle Book’s central back-and-forth. Throughout the film, Mowgli flocks with other birds, ever tempted by Baloo’s calls of the wild—just the bare necessities—even while Bagheera nudges the “man-cub” closer and closer to the nearby “man-village.” And Mowgli is happy to follow in Baloo’s footsteps, right up until his eyes fall upon a village girl (“Forget about those, they ain’t nothin’ but trouble,” the bear warns) who ruffles his feathers with a song about finding her own home: “I must go to fetch the water/ ’Til the day that I am grown/ Then I will have a handsome husband/ And a daughter of my own.” The meaning is clear: Mowgli will get grown; Mowgli will become her handsome husband. Mowgli forsakes the call of the wild for a different sort of calling, or a different sort of wildness.

In the end, Mowgli goes straight—a punch line made punchier by the earlier exchange between Baloo and Bagheera (who all but set the template for ambiguous Disney duos like Lumière and Cogsworth and Timon and Pumbaa). Bagheera begins the film by purring, “Many strange legends are told of these jungles of India, but none so strange as the story of a young boy named Mowgli.” None so strange, says Bagheera, but he might as well say, none so queer. He might as well begin, “A bear and a twink walk into the jungle…”

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Whatever queerness creeps into The Jungle Book has long been trampled underfoot its weightier racism. The film is “Inspired by the Rudyard Kipling ‘Mowgli’ Stories” (so say the opening credits) and, as io9’s Katharine Trendacosta helpfully reminds us, “Rudyard Kipling Was a Racist Fuck and The Jungle Book Is Imperialist Garbage.” It’s difficult not to think of The Jungle Book as “from the author who brought you ‘The White Man’s Burden,’” and Trendacosta notes that Disney fairly fanned the flames of said dumpster fire by creating the character of King Louie whole cloth—an ape who sang “I Wan’na Be Like You” in a movie released at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Jon Favreau’s recent remake of The Jungle Book—the occasion for Trendacosta’s essay and, really, my own—goes to some lengths to redress the original’s ugliest inferences, turning Louie, for instance, into a Colonel Kurtz-like Gigantopithecus (voiced by Christopher Walken). More surprisingly, however, the film doesn’t end with “Enter village girl,” doesn’t end with “My Own Home,” but with Mowgli lounging on a branch between Baloo and Bagheera; roll credits. The movie doesn’t straighten Mowgli out (not yet, at least—a sequel is in the works).

This revision struck me as hard as it did because I’d lived through Mowgli’s meet-cute so very many times before: Laughed as he fell from a branch into the pool in which the girl is fetching water; felt the swell of sadness as Baloo concedes defeat from afar (“but I still think he’d have made one swell bear”); watched as Baloo and Bagheera walked off into the sunset, arm in arm, to a reprise of “Bare Necessities” after Mowgli shrugs—actually shrugs!—them off. I wore out my VHS of The Jungle Book waiting for a happier ending, a gayer ending, that never came.

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I first saw The Jungle Book when I was five years old, at a movie theater in a mall in Virginia. Disney had re-released the feature in advance of its home video debut—and just in time for the Boomers who’d seen the film some twenty years earlier to share it with their own kids. The movie had clearly meant something to my parents, who would’ve been ten when it came out, and who, as children growing up in Scotland, held a particular fondness for the British flavor of the thing, between its tenuous links to Kipling (born in Bombay and sent back to England when he was five), its cast (Cabot, George Sanders, J. Pat O’Malley), and its silly, sweet parody of The Beatles (in the guise of a quartet of vultures).

I don’t remember the experience itself—it would’ve been the summer, there might’ve been a thunderstorm—but an array of artifacts in my parents’ basement attest to its effect on me: stuffed animals from the Disney Store, Happy Meal toys, a snow globe, a framed, 300-piece puzzle of the film’s poster—never mind the shelves of cassettes, records, read-alongs, and picture books. I borrowed my elementary school’s copy of The Jungle Book so often that the librarian eventually let me have it. My mom, an AMC devotee, introduced me to the 1942 Jungle Book starring Sabu. I devoured Kipling’s Just-So Stories, hoping that Mowgli might make an appearance. And, hungry for more Jungle Books, I wrote and illustrated my own, including an early effort (Crayola marker on loose-leaf, c. 1990) featuring a totally nude Mowgli traipsing amongst trees.

In some sense, The Jungle Book’s legacies in my life are obvious: I’m a writer; I’m an academic. I can sketch a clean line from dressing up as Kipling for an author’s day in third or fourth grade to dressing up as a professor, gesturing to the problematic instead of (however unwittingly) embodying it. Even my scholarly focus—adaptations across centuries and across media—can be said to have sprung from the Jungle Books, with my desire to hold all the different versions of the story (yes, even TaleSpin) in view, to wonder at that moreness. But only Favreau’s rewriting attuned me to the messier lines from then to now, to the somewhat less straight lines of the original itself, to its other curves and undulations, to its other reverberations.

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The Jungle Book is a picaresque that should be a Bildungsroman. That is, what should be a straight story about the lowly Mowgli’s gradual transformation from cub to man is really a series of short stories—like those that inspired it—in which Mowgli guest stars before landing an ongoing role in the rom-com hinted at by the film’s ending. There’s Mowgli’s failed attempt to enlist in a regiment of not-so-orderly elephants (an obvious sendup of the British Raj); there’s his kidnapping at the hands of King Louie’s monkeys, who entreat Mowgli to show them the power of “man’s red flower” (he can’t); and there are the aforementioned vultures, who attempt to cheer Mowgli up with some barbershop harmonies after a spat with Baloo and Bagheera. Each group welcomes and expels Mowgli in turn: hello, then goodbye, from the other side.

When I was a kid, though, no scene in The Jungle Book stirred me more than Mowgli’s initial encounter with Kaa, the great python, who attempts to lure the man-cub into his maw by means of hypnosis. In a movie that amounts to a series of detours (vultures and monkeys and elephants, oh my!), this is one of the weirdest—not in the least because Kaa is a villain in a film that doesn’t need one: Shere Khan, the jungle’s resident Bengal, is already Mowgli’s sworn enemy. Kaa is extraneous—or extraneousss, as Sterling Holloway would hiss, leaning as he does into the sibilance of the snake’s speech.

So: a lisping serpent whose hypnotic draw is signaled by his eyes turning into kaleidoscopes of aqua, lavender, and bright yellow—colors all but absent from the rest of the film. Kaa’s rainbow gaze is the surest and, beyond the Beatles riff, maybe the only clue that the movie was made in the late sixties. It’s a precursor to David Bowman’s trippy blinks in 2001: A Space Odyssey (released the following year), or a tryout for the slightly psychedelic breakdown in Disney’s next animated feature, The Aristocats (featuring both Holloway and Harris). Kaa is Charlie Manson: flower power gone wrong.

But Kaa isn’t a murderous messiah—he’s the serpent himself, with all the psychosexual import of his Biblical progenitor (Favreau’s film recasts Scarlett Johansson in the role). I felt tempted by Kaa when I was a kid, but I couldn’t say why, or into what. Like the other animals in The Jungle Book with whom Mowgli flirts, Kaa is a diversion en route to the village girl, just a particularly perverse diversion. He offers neither the orderly regime of the elephants nor the loose camaraderie of the monkeys nor the Beckettian rapport of the vultures. He’s a loner. He’s far out.

By the end of elementary school, I had two pet snakes.

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Kaa’s contours—he transforms into a set of stairs and a loop de loop in his second attempt on Mowgli—could ultimately stand for the film as a whole: diversions, paths leading nowhere in particular, the man-cub trying on different sets of feathers until he flies the coop. As queer theorist Jack Halberstam writes, “Animated films for children revel in the domain of failure,” and The Jungle Book is full of missteps. Mowgli escapes from Kaa only to interrupt the elephant’s march, to be taken by King Louie’s crew, to waste time with Baloo and, later, to dance with the bored foursome of vultures. Mowgli doesn’t belong anywhere; Mowgli doesn’t belong everywhere.

As a kid who drifted from one group of friends to another, I saw myself in Mowgli’s tentativeness, his questioning. Halberstam repeats Kathryn Bond Stockton’s claim that “childhood is an essentially queer experience,” one “long lesson in humility, awkwardness, [and] limitation.” The Jungle Book, for all of its faults, is an essentially queer experience, too: one long, awkward walk, one long lesson in limits to which Mowgli finally accedes when he enters the man-village, a domain differentiated in a way that the jungle is not. But the film stops at the village; it doesn’t start there. When Mowgli shrugs off Baloo and Bagheera, he shrugs us off too. We follow the bear and the panther back into the jungle to revel with the vultures and the monkeys and the elephants again, to idle with Baloo and dawdle with Kaa. This isn’t my fair Mowgli. It’s a strange story—none so strange—about the unfixed nature of identity, about mobility. It’s a loose adaptation about loose adaptation.

Favreau’s remake reminded me of all that strangeness, much of which it lacks, for better and for worse. In the new film, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks turn Mowgli into a maker, an enterprising man-cub whose prowess with branches, leaves, and vines allows him to sate Baloo’s appetite for honey, rescue a baby elephant, and eventually defeat Shere Khan. Mowgli doesn’t find his own home; he makes it.

The same night that I saw the film, I watched the original again for the first time in years. I thought of what a comfort the movie must’ve been to a strange boy, a boy with foreign parents, a boy who tended to make friends more easily with girls than with other boys. With eyelids as heavy as Mowgli’s under Kaa’s spell, I drifted off to sleep before the ending.