Walt Disney/Richard Cartwright
The Jungle Book is seriously crushing the casting game right now.
This morning, Deadline revealed that two new actors have come aboard the all-singing, all-dancing, all-CG wildlife pic directed by Jon Favreau (as opposed to the other one, coming from Andy Serkis). Giancarlo Esposito, best known for portraying a dark-universe Colonel Sanders on Breaking Bad, will play the wolf Akela. And Christopher Walken, best known for a lifetime of skeezing people out by being Christopher Walken, will play the orangutan King Louie.
Those two extra-talented thespians join Ben Kingsley as the panther Bagheera (yes, splendid), Lupita Nyong’o as mother wolf Raksha (really, really great), Scarlett Johansson as the python Kaa (this is perfect) and Idris Elba as the film’s antagonist, the tiger Shere Khan (good god yes). Also, there’s some newcomer named Neel Sethi playing Mowgli, but he is not a well-loved Hollywood star voicing an extremely appropriate animal character. Temper your excitement accordingly.
Esposito’s a solid choice, but Akela isn’t really a standout of The Jungle Book. He raises Mowgli up like any other hairless pink wolf son and then skedaddles. Okay, that’s really just the Disney version. In Rudyard Kipling’s original novel, he sticks around to do various fatherly things. But in the public consciousness, Akela doesn’t count for much.
King Louie counts for basically everything. That Favreau’s even attempting to do a King Louie takes great fistfuls of chutzpah, because due to legal reasons most Jungle Book adaptations have been legally barred from including the iconic ape. And the few that were allowed to go full Louie totally wussed out, rather than trying to replicate Louis Prima’s old-timey Italian stereotype charm.
Let’s count the many Jungle Books that have gone Louie-less, then point and laugh at their shame:
- Disney’s The Jungle Book 2 visited the site of Louie’s great ape monarchy, but wrote him off as having abandoned the place years ago.
- The 1994 live action Jungle Book (full title: Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book) had a Louie with barely any Louie to him. Just a regular orangutan who sometimes wore a crown. No dialogue. No hand-trumpet. Just a series of crushing disappointments.
- The two other live-action attempts, The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story and The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli and Baloo, simply ignored King Louie entirely.
- Jungle Cubs (think of it like Jungle Book Muppet Babies) did a young King Louie (Prince Louie), who sounded nothing like Prima.
- House of Mouse gave Louie a twin brother, Larry, who again, bore about as much aural resemblance to Louis Prima as an actual orangutan.
- Dumbo’s Circus had an orangutan resembling Louie named Q.T., because Dumbo’s Circus couldn’t be bothered to spend ten seconds thinking of a cute spin on “King Louie.”
Only the animated TV series Talespin, of all things, looked danger in the eye and didn’t blink, creating a character that was named King Louie and actually sounded like King Louie (thank voice actor Jim Cummings, whose career is built on mimicking classic Disney voices). In the realm of Louiedom, regard Talespin as your God. Although Dumbo’s Circus is also worth a mention for being a putrefied fever dream that would probably cause most little kids to kill others, or themselves.
Here, enjoy Q.T the orangutan, providing the musical accompaniment to Sebastian the Cat’s messy crucifixion.
Part of the reason King Louie is so un-adaptable is that unlike the rest of The Jungle Book’s animal cohorts, he was an original Disney creation, written specifically for Prima (well, techically Louie Armstrong, but Prima ended up with the part). King Louie is Prima, and with Prima gone for almost 40 years now, that means no King Louie.
But Walken is just as iconic in his own right. He’s got a voice and a walk and a set of mannerisms that’d be just as recognizable in orangutan form as Prima’s. Also, one of Walken’s many talents (along with: speech at a rate of seven words per minute; terrifying children and the elderly; golf ball-sized eyes), is a dazzling singing voice. Below, watch a young Walken exemplify the classic Hollywood triple threat of singer, stripper and deluded maniac.
Can you feel your Jungle Book hype levels rising? I can. Serkis will have to go Gary Busey-tier or higher if he wants to keep up.