Racism warning on remake of Jungle Book film

The Jungle Book

Disney’s new live-action version of the 1967 film will have to take great care not to cause offence, critics say

Disney is bringing back The Jungle Book in a live-action remake, but worries over racial stereotyping that plagued the 1967 cartoon original are already making critics fret.

The film, which premieres in Los Angeles tomorrow, has a stellar cast, including Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Bill Murray as Baloo, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, Lupito Nyong’o as wolfmother Raksha, and newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli. Director Jon Favreau promises a film that relies heavily on author Rudyard Kipling’s “strong mythic stuff”. But both Kipling’s book, which was written from a British colonialist perspective, and Disney’s animated adaptation have long been criticised for their racist overtones, and critics warn that it will take more than talking animals and other visual effects to avoid offence.

“The first Disney Jungle Book was based on Kipling; the next one will be based on the movie, so it’ll be another generation removed from Kipling, which will help,” Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, told Yahoo Movies. Hollywood is highly sensitive to accusations that it lacks racial sensitivity and resists diversity, so the decision to remake Jungle Book might seem particularly risky. In the original film King Louie (who is not in Kipling’s book) was an ape with poorer linguistic skills than the other animals. His “I Wanna Be Like You” song was sung by American singer and trumpeter Louis Prima in a Dixieland style. According to movie lore, when Disney animators first approached Prima, he joked with them: “You wanna make a monkey outta me?”

On the film’s release, the character of King Louie was widely criticised for connoting inequality between African-Americans and Caucasians.

Disney should perhaps have steered clear, said the Christian Science Monitor, in a damning piece following the announcement of plans to make the movie two years ago. “Why bother with this morass when there are so many other books to choose from that are as yet undiscovered by the Disney audience? Disney can afford fresher fare than a rehash of a film that will have to be so deconstructed from the original into an unrecognisable hash in order to succeed.”

Twelve-year-old New Yorker Sethi was cast as Mowgli after an audition of 2,000 hopefuls. Christopher Walken plays King Louie.

Favreau has said he switched between the book and the film to chose the elements of the story for his version and was inspired by the visual effects of the 2013 sci-fi fantasy film Gravity.

Murray and Sethi performed their version of “The Bare Necessities” on US late night TV last week, suggesting that this, at least, will remain in the film.

In February, Favreau told the website Collider of his love of New Orleans jazz and how his whole musical baseline had come from watching Bugs Bunny and Disney cartoons. “The archetypes introduced to a young Jon Favreau also affected who I am. So I didn’t want it to be distracting, but I definitely wanted to introduce to the next generation some of the influences I was introduced.”

A Hindi version of the film is set to be released in India at the same time, with Indian actress Priyanka Chopra standing in for Johannsen as the seductive snake, Kaa.

Among those monitoring reaction to the film will be Warner Brothers, which is releasing its own remake, Jungle Book: Origins, next year, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Edward Helmore New York, for The Observer on Sunday 3rd April 2016 00.05 Europe/London

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