As much as I love the classic early Disney animated films, the 2D animation revival of the 80s and 90s, and the modern 3D computer generated films the studio makes today, I have a real soft spot for the rustic animation from the 60s and 70s. Movies like 101 Dalmatians, Robin Hood, and The Jungle Book have a charm to their style of rough pencil drawings coming through the ink and paint.
With The Jungle Book coming out on Blu-ray on February 11, it gave me a chance to revisit this spirited classic, which happens to be the final animated feature that Walt Disney was personally involved with before his death in 1966. Watching this again reminded me of seeing a re-release trailer for the film in the 1980s with a friend, and hearing him exclaim: “There are no bears in the jungle.”
This got me thinking… would all the animals in The Jungle Book ever interact in real life?
The Answer: Actually, they would. (Though it would get too bloody for a children’s movie.)
Since my friend so loudly brought Baloo the bear’s existence into question in that movie theater in the 80s, let’s start with him. While Baloo has the appearance of an American black bear (with a lighter coat) or possibly a grizzly or brown bear, the character is in fact a sloth bear, native to India and the surrounding areas. Though the exact location of The Jungle Book isn’t specified in the film, it is set in the Indian jungle. This is where sloth bears make their home, dining on insects and fruits.
Like Baloo, they are laid back and relatively tame, though they are generally shorter and lankier than depicted in the film. Baloo’s physical size is closer to the American black bear, towering over the 10-year-old Mowgli at a height of seven or eight feet.
Kaa is an Indian python that repeatedly tries to hypnotize and eat Mowgli. As depicted in the film, Kaa is considerably longer than a typical Indian python, which grows to about nine feet. Kaa’s length is more typical of the closely-related species of the Burmese python, one of the largest snakes in the world, sometimes measuring more than 20 feet. The Indian python is known to eat small and medium-sized mammals. However, his attacks on Mowgli would likely not end well. After a meal of such size, pythons remain immobile for days while the prey digests. With Mowgli’s protectors Baloo and Bagheera the panther close by, they would likely scare Kaa away, forcing him to regurgitate his meal a la Jon Voight in Anaconda.
Despite intensive research, I couldn’t verify if Jon Voight lives in the jungle.
The two main cats in the film – Bagheera the black panther and Shere Khan the Bengal tiger – are both found in India. In fact, black panthers (which are currently a threatened species) have been seen outside of their normal jungle habitat lately. Similarly, the elephants portrayed in the film are of the Indian variety, accurately shown with ears much smaller than that of their African counterparts.
Even Mowgli isn’t an impossibility in the film. Stories of feral children have been told for centuries, including the famous (though now mostly debunked) story of Amala and Kamala, two Indian girls said to have been raised by wolves and found in the 1920s.
What about the monkey problem?
While monkeys are quite common in India (in fact, so numerous that they’re causing problems in the cities with begging and mugging), it’s unclear what type of monkeys work as King Louie’s lackeys. More than a dozen species of monkey and lemur are found in India, though none are as large as the ones seen in the film. These monkeys are at least the size of Mowgli, who would be at least four feet tall. One of the largest monkeys in India is the gray langur, which only stands less than three feet tall.
Even more out of place would be the orangutan King Louie himself. Orangutans are native to Borneo in Indonesia and Sumatra in Malaysia, which aren’t terribly far from India, but it is a considerable distance. Also, since Indonesia and Malaysia are island nations and orangutans don’t swim, King Louie would only be able to migrate there on a ship. The only possibility for this character would be if he managed to hop a ship from his homeland to India. Male orangutans are known for running solo in the jungle, so perhaps after finding himself in India, King Louie stumbled across a cadre of monkeys and declared himself ruler. Like anyone would.
So, accounting for the anomaly of the ape in the story, the character interactions seem pretty plausible.
So they’d all live happily ever after, right?
Maybe not. As endearing as the character of Bagheera is, and less imposing than the deadly Shere Khan, he is a fearsome predator in his own right. Black panthers aren’t lounging in trees like kindly old men on their front porch ready to hand out hard candy to the neighborhood kids. Panthers would have no problem attacking a young man-cub like Mowgli. In fact, it’s a general rule of nature for predators to target the old, sick, and young as easy prey. If they’re wandering around alone, so much the better.
Of course, the same can be said for Mowgli’s adoptive family. He is raised by a pack of Indian wolves, whom Bagheera surprises early in the film. While cases of feral children sometimes involve wolves and wild dogs caring for their own man-cubs, the Indian wolf has been known to attack humans. The mere fact that Mowgli survives more than five minutes into the film is the greatest miracle of the entire story.
In fact, aside from Mowgli’s final destination in the man-village, the safest place for him in the jungle would be hanging with Baloo. Kaa wants to eat him. Shere Khan wants to eviscerate him. Bagheera and his own family could turn on him at any moment. The elephants could possibly sit on him. And don’t get me started with what the monkeys might do.
Even though Baloo is omnivorous, like Renfield in Dracula, he only takes the life of tiny little insects.
So it’s a good thing that Mowgli makes it to the man-village, or he would have turned into someone’s dinner soon.