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1994's The Jungle Book: The forgotten first Disney live-action remake

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Dec 26, 2019, 3:22 PM EST (Updated)

Over the past decade, The Walt Disney Company has released no fewer than 13 remakes of its back catalog of classic animated titles. In 2019 alone, audiences were treated to five of these movies, with a mega-budget remake of Mulan set for March. This is the new business model for Disney, a company that has always thrived thanks to its uncanny ability to tap into audiences' nostalgic desires and inextricably entwine itself with our inner state of childhood. Fans often grumble about how pointless it feels to do what frequently feels like shot-for-shot remakes of our favorite films, but devoid of the originals' charm and vibrancy. Still, audiences flock to see them and will probably continue to do so until Disney runs out of things to remake.

Debates continue over what the first true Disney live-action remake is. The current trend of inescapable remakes that follow a highly specific narrative kicked off in 2010, when Tim Burton remade Alice in Wonderland and its billion-dollar gross made some executives' eyes open wide at the House of Mouse. There is a case to be made that 1996's 101 Dalmatians, with Glenn Close gloriously chewing the scenery as Cruella De Vil, inspired Disney thanks to its respectable commercial success and a screenplay penned by John Hughes. However, these discussions almost entirely omit the remake that came beforehand, a whole two years before the Dalmatians ran amok. Long before Jon Favreau remade it, Stephen Sommers of The Mummy fame brought us The Jungle Book.

In 1894, British writer Rudyard Kipling published The Jungle Book, a collection of stories that centered on Mowgli, a young orphan boy living among the animals of the Indian forests. Kipling was born in India and spent his early childhood in the country before returning to work thereafter, leaving school. The stories he wrote are imaginative, often deeply moral, and essentially the embodiment of colonial fiction. The academic Jopi Nyman argued in 2001 that Kipling's book contributed to "an imagining of Englishness as a site of power and racial superiority." It's tough to read the stories now and not be overwhelmed by the stench of imperialism. Of course, as Nyman also notes, The Jungle Book has been almost entirely Disneyfied to the past several generations of children. The chances are, especially if you're British and American, that when you think of The Jungle Book, the first thing that comes to mind is a cartoon orangutan dancing with a bear in a grass skirt.

When the Italian theorist Umberto Eco famously visited Disneyland, he wrote about the "absolutely fake cities" of the theme park and how the wildly popular attraction made reality bigger, brighter, and a whole lot more entertaining than it really is. This "hyperreality" is present throughout Disney's work, but especially when it comes to depictions of the past: The France of Beauty and the Beast is one free of starving underclasses and the guillotine; Song of the South looks at the end of slavery with the rose-tinted glasses of the Confederacy and puts black Americans "in their place," where being enslaved seemed to make them happy; The Jungle Book pretends colonialism never happened. The animals are just cute animals. Mowgli is just a kid, and in the medium of animation, the abrasive edges of reality can be sanded away. That's something you can replicate with live action, but in 1994 it seemed that Disney wanted to be braver.

1994's The Jungle Book was partly the brainchild of Raju Patel, an Indian producer who thought a new Jungle Book movie would be the perfect way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the stories' publication. Originally the movie was going to be an independent production, but Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg saw the potential for brand expansion and stepped in, offering a bigger budget and greater access to stars. Stephen Sommers was a big fan of the original and told The L.A. Times that "we could never outdo the animated version [...] But we could do some things they didn't do. For instance, we could show how the animals' names came from the Hindi language. We tried to pay some homage to the previous version by keeping the names the same." Given how keen Katzenberg and the company were to stress that this version of The Jungle Book was a remake of the animated version from the '60s, it's a surprise how different the two films are.

The 1994 film gives a stronger origin story to Mowgli, showing him as the son of a local widower who works as a tour guide for the British Raj. After Shere Khan, the tiger, attacks the encampment, furious that the white men have killed the creatures of the jungle for sport, Mowgli's father is mauled to death and Mowgli finds himself taken in by Bagheera the black panther and the local wolf pack. So far, so Disney, only this time the narrative jumps to Mowgli as a 20-something half-naked man roaming the jungle, taking on King Louie and fighting Kaa. Mowgli is ably played by Jason Scott Lee, and given how long it took Disney to stop dragging its feet this past decade and make its films less white, it's still kind of a surprise to see him front and center in this movie rather than an oiled-up white dude named Chris. The best scenes in the film are when Lee as Mowgli is part of the jungle, going full-on Indiana Jones. That may be the property that this one resembles most, even more than the material it's supposed to be based on.

This Jungle Book may be more action-oriented than its source material, both book and animated movie, but it's also got some interesting tricks up its sleeve. For one, it's a PG-rated family movie with surprising brutality in some moments, certainly beyond what Disney typically allows. Crucially, much of the film was shot on location and real animals were used. Thankfully, none of the animals are dubbed over with human voices. Instead, this version of Mowgli's world is, if not rooted in realism, then certainly leaning away from the cutesy fantasy of Disney. It's a stark contrast to the current remake era, where photorealistic CGI animals have left us stranded in a permanent state of the uncanny valley.

Another important element of this is the undeniable presence of colonialism. Colonel Brydon (Sam Neill), the man Mowgli's father acted as a guide for, shows up when the story jumps forward, accompanied by his daughter Kitty (played by Lena Headey) and her smarmy fiancé Captain William Boone (Cary Elwes, heeding the call for an evil British posh-boy). Mowgli is infatuated with his once-childhood friend Kitty, now all grown up, and the pair soon fall in love, with Kitty reintroducing him to "civilization." Boone is, of course, unhappy with this development but is more interested in finding the legendary treasure of "Monkey City," which he is sure Mowgli can lead him to. Elwes is a familiar kind of pop culture baddie in his mustache-twirling elitism, embodying the most insidious tropes of colonialism. It would be a gutsy move from Disney if he weren't outnumbered by plenty of “good colonialists," including Colonel Brydon (spoiler alert, but British rule of India for close to a century wasn't exactly a good time for India). It's not unexpected given that this is still a Disney movie from 1994 and whiteness has done all it can over the decades to overlook the damage imperialism did to half of the planet. Still, when the film does so much right, it can't help but feel like a stubborn step back to the past when it makes choices like this.

The 1994 version of The Jungle Book still technically meets the requirements to be a Disney live-action remake, but only by a tiny margin. Really, what mostly defines this as a live-action remake is the presence of the Walt Disney logo on the poster. That branding, however, is enough to instill in audiences a desire to seek out such stories and an understanding of what to expect from them. It gave audiences anticipation for what version of The Jungle Book they were about to receive, but perhaps that's why the film didn't do as strongly as the company was hoping it would: It just wasn't similar enough for their liking.

Disney has done everything in the interim period to ensure its live-action remakes adhere to their impeccably Disney-esque source material to the point of redundancy. In my opinion, that's made its work so much weaker than it should be, but when the box-office numbers argue otherwise, it's not a challenge to understand why the company continues to do what it does. As it is, 1994's The Jungle Book stands as an unfairly overlooked curiosity of what could have been had Disney decided that remakes weren't to be wholly defined by their adjacency to the Disney source material. It didn't pay off for The Jungle Book to be more Kipling than Disney.

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