AGAINST THE GRAIN: The Jungle Book (1994)

Is Stephen Sommers’ version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic novel worth remembering? Oscar gives it a revisit. 

It’s been almost ten years since I last saw this 90s iteration of The Jungle Book and my affection for it has been rekindled. Despite diverging in many ways from Rudyard Kipling’s classic novel and being considered by many to be simply “okay,” I love this film. In fact, I wish Disney would push for a new release because, despite the changes, it manages to be an entertaining and engaging story on its own merits.

At the time of the British Raj, Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee) and his father guide a convoy of British troops on tour through the jungle. The young Mowgli is smitten by Colonel Brydon’s daughter, Kitty (Lena Headey). That night, the tiger Shere Khan attacks the convoy in vengeance for the soldiers’ poaching and kills Mowgli’s father. In the chaos, Mowgli and his wolf cub Grey Brother become lost in the jungle and are presumed dead. Bagheera the panther discovers the pair and leads them to the wolves, who adopt Mowgli and Grey Brother as members of the pack. Mowgli also adopts a bear cub named Baloo as his brother.

Mowgli grows up in the jungle and discovers a lost city ruled by King Louie the Orangutan and his monkey subjects, there he finds a diamond encrusted dagger and battles the snake Kaa with it. Meanwhile, it is revealed that Kitty has grown up and is exploring the jungle accompanied by her tutor Dr. Plumford (John Cleese) and her suitor Captain William Boone (Cary Elwes). Mowgli follows her back to the British fort and is captured by Boone, but Kitty requests him to be freed and is taught by her and Dr. Plumford the power of speech and the ways of civilisation, and over time, Mowgli begins to fall in love with her. Lusting for wealth and power, Captain Boone takes the dagger and learns from Mowgli the existence of the “Monkey City” and its treasure within. Unable to adjust to life amidst the British aristocracy and saddened by Kitty’s engagement to Boone, Mowgli returns to the jungle to Kitty’s dismay. However, Boone and his cronies hatch a plan to lure Mowgli back to lead them to the lost city by severely wounding Baloo and holding Kitty and Brydon hostage.

The acting all around is very earnest and enjoyable. Lee is emotive, innocent and sincere as Mowgli, and while I’m aware he’s not Indian, I feel his performance solidifies his place in the role, and he truly feels closer in spirit to Kipling than Disney’s earlier portrayal of the character, echoing the 1942 Mowgli portrayed by Indian star Sabu. Headey is very likeable as Kitty and has great chemistry with Jason, Elwes is enjoyable to watch as the sinister Boone, Sam Neill provides a British Officer’s seniority to the role of Brydon, and Cleese gets some funny moments when he’s teaching someone how to be civilised, but otherwise he mainly serves as a serious mentor figure.

Famous Kipling elements such as the “Law of the Jungle,” the red flower as a symbol for fire, as well as fire representing romantic passion and affinity towards the natural world are all present, and this gives the film a genuine soul. The backdrop of British Colonial-ruled India further juxtaposes the laws of man against the laws of nature, which has a profound impact on a young viewer. As any good film should, I was swept-up in the action, emotions and characters, and being an animal lover, I always rooted for Mowgli and his friends. This was also my very first high-adventure style movie, and while it scared me at first as a child, I still revisited it for that adventurous spirit. I’d even go so far as to say this is director Stephen Sommers’ best film, balancing the sentimental scenes with serious action and tension deftly.

The animal training is flawless. Shere Khan is a fierce force of nature portrayed as an anti-hero hunting both goodies and baddies. Grey Brother, Baloo and Bagheera are portrayed as warm, loyal, and benevolent brothers to Mowgli despite the lack of dialogue. And King Louie mugs and hollers like a mad monkey to great effect. Given the limitations of the time, they manage to convey a lot of emotions. The jungle and fort locations provide a rich atmosphere and lush visuals, too; Colonial India has never looked more exotic, benefiting from actual location scouting. The temple itself is a work of art. It all builds on the genuine sense of adventure. Basil Poledouris’ romantic score captures the exotic beauty of the region, underlining the action and moments of affection between Mowgli and Kitty with soaring crescendos and choruses. At one-hour and fifty-minutes, it feels very nicely paced and manages to keep investment going.

My only real problem with the movie is that, truth be told, it isn’t really Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book as the full poster title would suggest. It can even comes across as a bit too intense for young viewers with the villainous deeds, Shere Khan, Kaa, and the traps within the temple, and there are some instances of mild profanity. The narrative tends to alternate from nature film to love story to serious temple raid, coming off as a bit inconsistent. And I suppose some people were put-off by the fact that Sommers borrowed more from Tarzan (with Kitty as Jane) and Indiana Jones (with the antagonists, temple and treasure) with those associated tropes, yet the action scenes, visuals, and performances are good enough to carry the story.

Despite the script borrowing more from various unrelated adventure stories, Sommers’ film manages to be an entertaining story with engaging, sympathetic characters. The little moments of humour and charm between the characters are enough to keep the audience invested in this iteration. Because of that same adventurous style, beautiful visuals, romantic score, and likeable animal/human characters, I still rate 1994’s The Jungle Book very highly.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The film was originally intended to be an independent production. Then Disney became involved and provided additiona financing, increasing its budget from $18 million to nearly $30 million in the process.
  • The film required the use of over 200 trained animals, including 50 Tigers.
  • During all the scenes involving Shere Khan the set was cleared of non-essential personnel.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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