When Walt Disney started working on full-length animated features, the voice cast was irrelevant. Walt wanted the audience to believe Snow White’s voice was her own, despite Adriana Caselotti being the pipes behind her. As the studio evolved into the conglomerate it is today the adage turns into “Voice first, character second” leading to some questionable decisions – John Travolta as super-dog Bolt, anyone?
Released 49 years after its 1967 counterpart, director Jon Favreau’s adaptation of The Jungle Book is a gorgeously lush and thrilling adaptation with the voice cast to match. But is this another game of “Guess What A-list Star Voice That Is…” and do those voices improve or distract better than the 1967 original? There are no right answers but here’s how the Jungle Book voice cast stands, then and now.
Bagheera (Voiced by Sebastian Cabot in 1967 and Sir Ben Kingsley in 2016)
Militant panther Bagheera is Mowgli’s Jiminy Cricket – compelling him to do the right thing and guiding Mowgli towards returning to the “man village.” Bagheera’s voice remains relatively consistent throughout both versions, requiring a voice that soothes as well as persuades and commands when the need arises.
Sebastian Cabot was Disney’s voice of prim elegance, being the narrator for Disney’s Winnie the Pooh series entirely lulled audiences into a world of sleepy dreams. Cabot’s Bagheera was sarcastic and irritated, but sufficiently caring and kind. Viewers who watched Winnie the Pooh two years before would immediately recall Cabot’s voice and trust it, an example of Disney persona translating to a character.
You’ll hear this a lot, but Favreau’s enhancing of the various characters’ personalities only improves the vocal ensemble. Like Cabot, Kingsley’s voice conveys his love for Mowgli and also his paternalistic desire to get him to the man village safely. Unlike Cabot, though, there is no preconceived notion. In fact, Kinsley’s voice work isn’t filled with overly English flamboyance and thus remains nondescript, never smothering the character. You’re able to appreciate the character first without being distracted by the actor.
Winner: It comes down to persona versus performance here, and the edge goes to Kingsley. You care about Bagheera completely and don’t get the dominant dressing down the character conveyed with Cabot’s voice.
Baloo (Voiced by Phil Harris in 1967 and Bill Murray in 2016)
The voice of “the simple bare necessities of life,” Baloo is the Mr. Good Time Charlie of the Jungle. Baloo is a jovial, booming character and Phil Harris brought all that in spades. Harris was Disney’s go-to voice actor for several years. Outside of Baloo, he was also O’Malley, “the alley cat” in 1970’s Aristocats and Little John in the 1973 animated feature, Robin Hood.
Both Murray and Harris represent fun and frivolity, but Harris’ boisterous voice, especially his laugh, is as infectious as it is expansive. There is no doubt of his ability to protect Mowgli and the film’s dip into 1967 lingo – “swingin’ man” – sounds about as natural as it could be through Harris. And because Harris was a character actor there wasn’t any chance for a recognized persona to trample over the basic tenets of the character.
Unfortunately Bill Murray’s just too well-known to play anything other than Bill Murray, so we essentially get “Bill-oo” with his performance. Murray certainly represents fun and whimsy, but there’s no added nuance to the character, and the overabundance of jokey one-liners dampens the overall relationship between Mowgli and Baloo.
Winner: Murray’s got an active and vocal fanbase, but Phil Harris remains the best Baloo there is. His booming base corrals the characters while perpetuating an atmosphere of joviality. Murray’s fun, but he represents the “star first, character second” mentality Disney currently subscribes to.
Kaa (Voiced by Stanley Holloway in 1967 and Scarlett Johansson in 2016)
Kaa originated with the help of another Disney alumnus, Stanley Holloway, whom audiences will recognize as the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Winnie the Pooh himself (which only makes Kaa creepy when you know he loves honey and squeezing little boys to death). Kaa’s perpetually high-pitched, nearly strangled, voice is a gentle whisper lulling as Winnie the Pooh and intriguing as the Cheshire Cat. As the manipulative snake Kaa, Holloway creates a perfect storm with a character that seduces in the hopes of devouring you.
Changing Kaa’s gender isn’t exclusive to Favreau’s version, used in 1998’s The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story. On the surface, it adds a tinge of femininity into a predominantly male storyline but also brings in an added sexual component due to the now divided gender dynamics. (You could almost go biblical with a female snake, the common symbol of the devil, but I don’t have the page space for that.) Johansson’s voice, like Holloway, calms, and the added sound effects give it an additional echo, her voice enveloping Mowgli as much as her snake-like body. Despite the apparent change of gender, there’s no discernible change to the use of the performer. In this iteration, Kaa has less of a presence and thus the male to female change does little more than infuses the character with something passing for memorable.
Winner: Since Kaa has such a middling presence in Favreau’s version it’s to Johansson’s disadvantage. I’d give the edge to Holloway merely because Kaa pops up enough in 1967 to have a sense of presence.
King Louie (Voiced by Louis Prima in 1967 and Christopher Walken in 2016)
Similar to Kaa, King Louie is a colorful character relegated to one sequence – and a rollicking song in “I Wanna Be Like You” – before disappearing from the narrative entirely, so both films resort to stunt casting, albeit in different mediums.
Best known as the “king of the swinger’s,” this was the only time jazz musician Louis Prima played an actual character; he played himself or unnamed orchestra leaders in several films before and after this. The 1967 version of The Jungle Book was desperate to tap into the zeitgeist of audiences both old and new, hence Prima and the vultures originally meant to be voiced by the Beatles. Prima’s here purely for the song, which he sings with wild abandon. King Louie, more than any other character featured, serves little purpose than being a talking anachronism with little connection to the Indian jungles and more the ’60s as a decade.
Walken’s like Murray – the minute you hear that voice ring out the character becomes the performer, and you’re crying for “more cowbell” (which cameos). In this case, Walken’s singing conjures up bad images of the recent musical Peter Pan production, and his King Louie sounds like a low-level enforcer in a Martin Scorsese movie or just Christopher Walken.
Winner: By their very nature both character and performer are in unison. Walken has the advantage – everyone loves him – and the character, at least, is more in tune with the film narrative.
Shere Khan (Voiced by George Sanders in 1967 and Idris Elba in 2016)
For a big bad like Shere Khan, you need voices illustrating menace and a beguiling sense of intrigue. This is the hardest match-up for me considering the two melodious voices assembled.
White Russian George Sanders provided the warm mahogany tones back in 1967, creating a Shere Khan that verges on being fey, which is how most British people were perceived in film at the time. Much like his character Addison DeWitt in 1950’s All About Eve, Sanders’ mellifluous voice gave a villain who enjoyed toying with people. The menace bubbled under the surface. Imagine Shere Khan voiced by Hans Gruber before all the guns came out and you’d have Shere Khan.
Idris Elba is slowly becoming part of the Disney voice canon, starring in the second of three Disney movies this year (this, Zootopia and Finding Dory). Elba’s gritty London brogue mixed with his mutilated and intimidating appearance with a voice to match leaves us with a character that completely terrifies. Shere Khan has added motivation for hating Mowgli in the new film but, at the end of the day, he’s little more than a sociopath.
Winner: George Sanders has one of the greatest Disney villain voices, but Idris Elba creates a character that, if animals conceivably had speech, terrifies from both a physical and vocal standpoint. His voice allows Shere Khan to seem entirely representative of all the jungle’s evils and is a voice Mowgli indeed should fear.