Disney Gave The Jungle Book the Live-Action Treatment Twice in the 1990s: A Deep Dive Into the Long-Forgotten Films

E! News takes a closer look at Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book and The Jungle Book: Mowgli's Story as Jon Favreau's adaptation swings into theaters

By Zach Johnson Apr 15, 2016 12:00 PMTags
The Jungle BookDisney

Is there anyone alive who hasn't seen The Jungle Book?

We're referring, of course, to Walt Disney Productions' 1967 animated classic. Inspired by Rudyard Kipling's book of the same name, it told the story of a "man-cub" named Mowgli and his animal friends. The movie was released just 10 months after Walt Disney's death (he passed away during its production) and was the fourth-highest grossing film that year. Beloved for its musical numbers, including "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You," the movie continued to charm audiences for decades. In fact, it was re-released theatrically in North America in 1978, 1984 and 1990, raking in nearly $142 million in a 23-year span.

Beginning with Alice in Wonderland in 2010, Walt Disney Pictures has been reimagining its animated features as live-action blockbusters. (Maleficent and Cinderella followed in 2014 and 2015, respectively, while many other reboots are currently in post- or pre-production phases.) It was only a matter of time before The Jungle Book received the same treatment. Directed by Jon Favreau, the latest iteration introduces Neel Sethi as Mowgli and features the voice talents of Idris Elba, Giancarlo Esposito, Scarlett Johansson, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Lupita Nyong'o and Christopher Walken. It's earned universal raves, with Entertainment Weekly calling it a "wall-to-wall" pleasure. "The Jungle Book is a tender and rollicking fable that manages to touch on some grown-up themes about man's destructive power and the loss of youthful innocence without losing sight that it's first and foremost a gee-whiz kids adventure," Chris Nashawaty wrote. Variety's Andrew Barker praised Favreau, as he "never loses sight of the fact that he's making an adventure story for children—no small matter in a kid-pic landscape flooded with inappropriately gritty reboots and frenetic distraction devices."

This wasn't the first time Disney gave The Jungle Book the live-action treatment; in fact, the studio did it twice in the '90s. We watched them so you wouldn't have to.


In 1994, Stephen Sommers co-wrote and directed Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. Originally intended as an independent production, Disney came on board with extra financing. Sommers' was not the story of Mowgli the man-cub. Rather, it was the story of Mowgli the man (played by Jason Scott Lee). Borrowing elements from Indiana Jones and Tarzan, he and co-writers Mark Geldman and Ronald Yanover reinvented his back-story. Gone were the song and dance numbers, and none of the animals spoke a word. Narrated by Colonel Geoffrey Brydon (Sam Neill), viewers first met Mowgli as a 5-year-old boy alongside his father, a widowed tour guide. Early on, Mowgli's connection to the animal world was apparent. "The holy man say I'm half a tiger," he said in broken English. "He said when I see Shere Khan and show no fear, then I be whole tiger." After Shere Khan attacked the camp that very night, Mowgli fled into the jungle. The next day, he encountered a panther, Bagheera, who took him to a watering hole. Adopted and raised by wolves, he also befriended a bear named Baloo. Not once did Mowgli shed tear over his loss. In fact, he didn't emote much at all—unless he was looking confused.


Flash forward two decades and Mowgli had seemingly forgotten what civilized life was like. He fearlessly challenged King Louie the orangutan and his monkey minions, and he succeeded in retrieving a bracelet from Kaa, the python. In fact, it wasn't until his chance reunion with Kitty (Lena Headey) that he remembered she gave him that very bracelet when they were both kids. Mowgli, for reasons unknown, was wearing an outfit that is perfectly tailored to his body. It's unclear where he acquired such an ensemble, given that he'd forgotten how to speak English. Not that it mattered much. He and Kitty had an unspoken connection that stood the test of time. That doesn't sit well with Captain William Boone (Cary Elwes), who tried to fight Mowgli. William called him a "little savage and "an animal that needs to be taught a lesson in manners." Mowgli wasn't fazed because, duh, he didn't understand anything anyone said anyway. Ignorance is bliss, right?


The Brits retreated, and Mowgli followed them back into town. "Who are you? Do you speak English? Hindi?" Kitty asked him. Along with Dr. Julius Plumford (John Cleese), she made it her mission to re-introduce Mowgli to society. It wasn't easy, of course, but they started with the basics. They taught him how to bathe, how to read, and how to do many other things most adults don't think twice about. In turn, Mowgli introduced Kitty to Bagheera and Baloo. "They speak not as man speak. With animals, every move, every sound has a meaning," he told her. (Fast learner of the English language, no?) "The jungle speaks to me because I've learned how to listen." Around the same time, William convinced Mowgli to tell him about the treasure in Monkey City—without revealing its location, much to his chagrin. "Man has many laws, most about killing. You kill for sport and anger and treasure. The jungle law say we may only kill to eat and to keep from being eaten," Mowgli said after seeing his taxidermy trophies. William replied, "You almost sound like a man instead of an animal hats been trained to sound like one." An unshaken Mowgli replied, "The more I learn what is a man, the more I want to be an animal."



Though he had trouble expressing it with words, it was clear Mowgli had fallen wildly in love with Kitty. But was feeling mutual? "There are conventions, normalities—things that are just not done," she explained. "I must do what's civilized." At her father's urging, Kitty accepted a proposal from William. "We shall be the most perfect couple in all India. We'll have success, wealth, power—" he said. "Love?" Kitty asked. "Yes. Yes, that too, of course." Uh, sure, William. Sure.


Just as Mowgli was about to leave, Kitty stopped him. "Mowgli, where are you going?" she asked. "You can't go back. You're not an animal. You are a man." Oof. Wrong thing to say. "I am not a man!" Mowgli yelled. "And I am not an animal." As Mowgli reminded her, "I run with the wolf pack. You must run with the man pack. It is the proper thing. I will shame your house no more." After their conversation, Kitty broke things off with William. "I can't marry you," she told him. "I won't marry you."

Suffice to say, William didn't take the news well.


Mowgli left anyway. His absence didn't stop William, though. His goons kidnapped Kitty, trusting that Mowgli would come after them. "Take us to the treasure and she will live," William said when Mowgli did as predicted. Knowing what dangers lay ahead, Mowgli coolly replied, "I will take you there, and we'll see who lives."


On their journey to Monkey City, they learned Shere Khan was in pursuit. With Bagheera's help, Mowgli was able to escape. Sergeant Harley (Ron Donachie) tried to catch him, but fell in quicksand and drowned. One by one, William's henchmen disappeared. Tabaqui (Anirudh Agarwal) attacked Mowgli on a cliff, and after a struggle, he fell to his death. Lieutenant Wilkins (Jason Flemyng), meanwhile, was mauled to death by Shere Khan. After reaching Monkey City, Buldeo (Stefan Kalipha) accidentally entombed himself in a trap while trying to murder Mowgli.

So much murder in a Disney movie!


At the film's climax, Mowgli found William in the treasure room. William's sword was no match for Mowgli's agility. "What do you think you have that I don't, huh?" William asked. Mowgli wasted no time listing his superior attributes: "the strength of a bear, the speed of a panther, the heart of a wolf and very sharp teeth."

Neither William nor Mowgli had much humility, apparently.


The two continued to spar as Kitty hid in the background.

Then, Kaa slithered over to William and went in for the kill.


After exiting the treasure room, Mowgli finally faced Shere Khan. After an intense (and slightly uncomfortable) staring contest, he informed Kitty that all was well: "Shere Khan sees me not as a man, but as a creature of the jungle." With the tiger's respect and bolstered confidence, he kissed Kitty—and at last, she kissed him back.


The end.

Except it wasn't, because in 1998, Disney released another live-action adaptation of Kipling's classic: The Jungle Book: Mowgli's Story. Unlike its predecessor from four years earlier, which was aimed at a more adult audience, this was meant strictly for children. Released direct-to-video, director Carlos Saldanha's film starred Johnny Tsunami himself, Brandon Baker, and took place during Mowgli's youth. Every animal had dialogue, though their mouths never moved when they spoke—think Homeward Bound. The Wonder Years' Fred Savage served as the movie's narrator. (So '90s!) Saldanha assembled an impressive roster, with Clancy Brown voicing Akela, the wolf; Sherman Howard voicing Shere Khan, the tiger; Eartha Kitt voicing Bagheera, the panther; Kathy Najimy voicing Chil, the vulture; Wallace Shawn voicing Tarzan, the chimp; and Stephen Tobolowsky voicing Tabaqui, the hyena. But, to its detriment, the groan-inducing jokes were written for the masses.


The story started when Shere Khan and his hyena henchman Tabaqui attacked a group of villagers late at night. Mowgli ran off in search of his parents, only to get lost in the jungle. Soon after, Mowgli was taken in by wolves (which they oddly agreed to do after little deliberation). The young wolf, Li'l Raksha, suggested a new name for Mowgli: "I say we call him Poo-Poo Pee-Pee." Asked what that meant, she told her dad, Akela, "Beats me, but it sure sounds funny." Sigh. So began the string of sophomoric jokes. As was the case with Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, Mowgli was never shown mourning the loss of his birth parents. In fact, early on in the movie, he said, "I gotta admit, it was pretty cool having a whole new family. I mean, sure, I missed my old one, but Akeela and Raksha were raising me just like I was one of their own, and it wasn't long before I could understand what all the animals were saying." Once the animals were able to communicate with Mowgli, why did none inquire about the human family he lost? Did Mowgli even miss them?

We may never know. (And yes, we understand this is a kids' movie.)


Shere Khan, who was presumed dead after attacking Mowgli's village, returned with a vengeance. "Separate the boy from his family," he instructed Tabaqui. "I did it once; I can do it again." Shere Khan was hell-bent on finding and killing Mowgli, and no one could convince him otherwise. As Baloo put it, "A tiger can't change his stripes." Oy. So many clichés. Tabaqui managed to convince some of the wolves to turn on Mowgli, and they alienated him from the pack by tricking him into scaring some prey away. Defeated, Mowgli wailed, "Sometimes I don't know what to think, or where I belong. Maybe I should just go away before I cause any more trouble. You're all better off without me!" Such a moody little man-cub...

After running away from his adopted family, Mowgli mistakenly put his trust in a few monkeys. They in turn locked him in an abandoned hut while a few of them alerted Shere Khan to his capture. With nowhere to run, Mowgli began to explore the place and came across a few familiar items. First, he picked up a framed portrait of a woman and tried talking to her as if she were a real person. "Hello? Can you come out?" he asked. "How did you get in there?" Mowgli also found a matchbook and accidentally started a small fire. With the "red flower" now in his possession, he devised an escape plan. "Guess what? Those chimps were right," Mowgli said. "This was a treasure hut, and I had found the greatest treasure of all." Soon after, Baloo burst through the door. "Now that's what I call crashing a party. Boy, next time I bust through a hut, remember to cover the bare necessities. What a dump! C'mon, Mowg, let's make tracks before Shere Khan makes us snacks."

(Has dialogue ever felt more forced?)


Mowgli made it back home, but not before Shere Khan killed his adoptive mother. Once the waterworks began, he asked, "What is happening to me? What are these things in my eyes?" Surely a boy of his age had cried before. Regardless, Bagheera explained that they were, in fact, tears. Hathi the elephant offered a more poetic response: "Tears are like a river, flowing from a broken heart." Mowgli's grief consumed him, so he decided to run away again. "Don't you understand? This is my fault!" he shouted. "I'm leaving the jungle and never coming back!" Oh, Mowgli.


As we all know, Mowgli was apt to change his mind. "I ran and ran until I just couldn't run anymore. And then, something happened. I had discovered a pack of man. All kinds of memories were coming back...And even though my jungle family taught me to fear man, I didn't. And they didn't seem to fear me, either," he said. "If anything, I felt welcome and comfortable and safe, like this was my home."

But was it?


The sounds of Li'l Raksha whimpering brought Mowgli back to the jungle.

After helping her out of a poacher's trap, Li'l Raksha begged him to stay. "You took the hunter's oath. You must stay and fight," she said. To her surprise, Mowgli agreed. "Running away isn't the answer. I have to face Shere Khan and beat him. But no wolf has faced that tiger alone," he said. Li'l Raksha reminded him that "a wolf can only fight like a wolf, but you can fight Shere Khan like a wolf and [a man]."


Armed with man's "red flower," Mowgli felt confident enough to take on the tiger. So confident, in fact, that he set up the meeting. "I may be small, I may be without claws or wings or a big mouth like you, but I am not without my power, Shere Khan," he said. His adversary balked and asked, "What power? That little stick?"

Turned out that little stick had the power of "the red flower."

"Can I quit?" Tabaqui asked after Mowgli lit a fire. "I quit."

"Et tu, Tabaqui?" Shere Khan asked.

Shere Khan begged Mowgli to kill him quickly. "Sorry, tiger. You're not getting off so easily," he said. "I'm taking your jungle away. You are banished from this land. You can't hunt or even set foot here again. Do you understand me, Shere Khan?"

He did, so off he went. "So long, fraidy cat," a turtle joked.

After his big showdown, Mowgli admitted, "I didn't feel like a man-cub anymore. I just felt like...a man." Before the credits rolled, Mowgli discovered something new: "Must be some kind of jungle book," he said. "I can't wait to hear what it says."


The End.

Well, until Favreau gave it a go. For what it's worth, his adaptation is more faithful to the animated original than the versions released in 1994 and 1998—and the visuals are far more spectacular. "The film is a triumph of technology and safe 'family' storytelling. It's dazzling—almost no one will dislike it," Vulture's David Edelstein wrote. Favreau "knows his audience," the critic added, "and he has enough skill and honest enthusiasm to win over all but the most determined skeptics."