Friday Flotsam: Jungle Books and Rockefeller

1. Had a depressing and discouraging week. Got a bit of a snaggle tooth, and it’s left me with a tongue sore. Home remedies include chamomile tea and honey, so trying those.

2. Revisited both the original The Jungle Book and the live action remake recently. Quite frankly, I’m still not sure which I think is overall the better film. The original, of course, has the marvelous animation, some great music and character work, and that absolutely perfect ending, but the remake brings much more of Kipling back into things and gives Mowgli himself a much stronger story arc, and the theme of man’s separation from and authority over the other beasts is better realized throughout.

That, and Ben Kingsley as Bagheera is kind of a bit of dream casting.

On the other hand, the original is very light fare and Mowgli himself is pretty flat as a protagonist, mostly just whining that he wants to stay in the jungle and being passed back and forth between the other characters (literally at one point) until it’s time for him to have his epiphany. A lot of the animation, good as it is, also ends up getting used more than once. While the remake has some rather gaping plot holes, tonal inconsistencies as it tries to mesh the original film with the book, and loses (or at least defers) the great ending of the original.

So, both I’d call squarely in the ‘good, not great’ camp, but both with great elements (the ending of the original, the humanity through-line in the remake). Though of course, the original has the added element of being Walt Disney’s last film and so carrying the bittersweet tone of a farewell, especially in its final moments. I’d say that edges it over the top.

3. One thing I would have changed in both versions is that I wish they’d kept Kaa’s character intact from the book. There he’s one of Mowgli’s mentors and friends (he joins Baloo and Bagheera in singing his farewell when Mowgli finally leaves the jungle) and the oldest and wisest creature in the jungle. Uncle Walt, unfortunately, didn’t think audiences would accept a heroic snake, and so he became a comedic secondary villain, voiced by the great Sterling Holloway

Scarlett Jo-Kaa-sson in the remake kind of aims for a halfway point between the characters in the book and original film: being a menace aiming to eat Mowgli as in the animated movie, but also a dignified, all-knowing figure like in the book.

(And I’ll admit, I like her rendition of ‘Trust in Me’ and kind of wish they’d managed to fit it into the film).

4. Speaking of which, I remember when the film was first coming out a friend and I were joking about the idea of Christopher Walken singing ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ in his Christopher Walken voice. Imagine my shock and delight when he did just that.

Walken as a now-giant King Louie doing a musical number is one of those things that is just so insane that you either will be completely taken out of the film or marvel that they had the audacity to pull it off. Obviously, I’m in the latter category (and I think it was probably a good idea to take him in a completely different direction from Louie Prima’s version, because there’s no way you’re topping that).

One detail I love from that scene, by the way: Louie gloats about his treasure, but it’s all rusting old pots and similar junk. Because he has no conception of what men actually value or why and is simply imitating without understanding them. Again, reinforcing the gulf between man and the other animals, even with the superficially-similar apes.

5. Something just occurred to me: thinking of Sterling Holloway’s performance as Kaa and remembering John Fiedler’s role as Jack the Ripper in that one Star Trek episode, would it be possible to assemble audio clips of the entire core Winnie the Pooh cast trying to murder people?

6. I should probably also revisit the now-mostly-forgotten 1994 Live Action version of The Jungle Book, starring Jason Scott Lee, Lena Headey, Cary Elwes, Sam Neil, and John Cleese (!!!), which is sort-of-not-really a remake of the animated film and only vaguely related to the book (kind of a much-expanded, Indian Jones’d-up version of The King’s Ankus). It originally started out as completely unrelated to the original, got brought under the Disney umbrella and a few shout-outs (e.g. King Louie, “the bare necessities”) were worked in. The horrible deaths visited upon the bad guys, however, (drowned in quicksand, mauled to death by a tiger, buried alive in an ancient trap, etc.) were kept the same. I have distant, but fond memories of it and would be interested to see if it holds up.

7. There’s a nice little anecdote from the life of John D. Rockefeller. For a long time he studiously avoided the press (since they tended to vilify him and he didn’t want to seem to validate them), so, naturally, reporters were sent to try to get surreptitious scoops on him. One intrepid reporter managed to slip onboard ship while he was travelling to Europe and so observe him during the voyage.

Much to the man’s shock, Rockefeller spent most of the trip playing with some children he had befriended onboard.

The experience led the reporter to re-examine his ideas of Rockefeller and finally to coax the old tycoon into an interview to give his side of the story.

Rockefeller was one of those interestingly contradictory men that our country seems to excel at producing: ruthless and unscrupulous in business, yet a sincerely believing Christian who attended the same small Baptist church every week to pass out the readings and give money and advice to his fellow parishioners. If you get a chance to read a good biography of him, I’d definitely recommend it (Ron Chernow’s is the one I read).

(Or you can go see the musical, if they ever get around to making it)

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