Disney is bringing back ‘The Jungle Book’ in a live-action remake but worries over the racial stereotyping that plagued the 1967 animated original have already emerged.
The film, which premiered in Los Angeles on 4 April, has a remarkable 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 has promised a film that corresponds heavily to author Rudyard Kipling’s “strong mythic stuff” although both Kipling’s book, which was written from a British colonialist perspective, and Disney’s animated adaptation have consistently been satirised for their racial overtones.
Critics have warned that it will take more than talking animals and other distractive visual effects to avoid offence. Hollywood is highly sensitive to accusations – it lacks racial sensitivity despite the fact it quite clearly lacks ethnic diversity, so the decision to remake ‘Jungle Book’ could be perceived as a risk.
In the original film, King Louie (who does not feature in Kipling’s book) was an ape with lesser linguistic skills. American singer and trumpeter Louis Prima delivered his ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ song in a Dixieland style. According to movie lore, when Disney animators first approached Prima, he joked with them, saying “You wanna make a monkey outta me?”.
Shortly after the film was released the character of King Louie was heavily condemned for its connotations of inequality between African-Americans and Caucasians.