Something that’s easy to take for granted if you grow up with Disney’s animated version of The Jungle Book is the incredible biodiversity that’s depicted. The central region of India that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s stories is home to an amazing array of creatures. Big cats, monkeys, elephants and snakes seem like a natural fit for a “jungle” — but bears and wolves, too? I’d never given much thought to these facts until I caught up with an earlier live action film version that came out of Hollywood in 1942. That film, conveniently, dropped the “the” in the title. It also made a point of highlighting biodiversity right off the bat, opening with a series of voiceover introductions to different animals. First among these, for some reason, is one of several Asian species of deer.
So, to be clear, we’re not looking at two Disney films here; we’re looking at two films that were released the same year. Both are ecological stories, positioning the human race as an external force in conflict with Nature. In Disney’s Bambi, this argument is only lightly suggested. In Jungle Book, it’s explicitly presented through on-screen villains. The latter film makes the case that greed is what transforms humanity into that external force. Nature is resilient in both films, withstanding the ravages of human destruction and carelessness. Whether the climate allows for a dramatic changing of seasons or not, the cycles of life carry on as always.
Bambi will always be most famous for the tragedy that strikes forty-one minutes into the sixty-nine minute running time. The death of Bambi’s mother, along with the devastating climactic forest fire, were enough for the American Film Institute to place “Man” at number twenty on its list of great movie villains. As an instigator of grief and terror, Man is indeed all the more effective for being a ghostly unseen presence. But I think it’s possible to read the film without making much of Man as a villain — to, in fact, consider him as merely another natural process. The film generally prances from one incident to another. Those first forty-one minutes mostly consist of young Bambi encountering different animals and weather patterns for the first time, all of it delightful and perfectly safe. And for all the shock of Bambi’s sudden bereavement in the snow, the film abruptly moves on from it. The quick fade-to-black separating “Your mother can’t be with you anymore” and “Let’s sing a gay little spring song” is quite insane. It all seems to dovetail with the movie’s idea of child-rearing. Bambi’s mother was needed to shepherd him through his youth, but his imperious, aloof father steps in to make him (at the risk of confusing my terms) a man. Even that fire, though it is clearly caused by Man’s negligence, is hardly an unfamiliar sight for a forest. The catastrophe, such as it is, is soundly survived.
Jungle Book, a production of the Korda brothers, is more didactic. The point is made early and often that the carnivores in the jungle kill for food, not sport, etc. One advantage of this story is a protagonist who straddles both worlds. A toddler later to be known as Mowgli wanders off into the jungle. His father is killed by the great tiger Shere Khan while looking for him. A family of wolves take care of the helpless boy, and he soon becomes a feral survivor. Then, as a young man (played by Sabu), he is suddenly reacquainted with his people, leading to a good deal of mutual distrust. In addition to greed (brought on by the discovery of a treasure trove inside ancient ruins), this is a tale of hubris, of human civilization trying to encroach on a vast, vicious realm. Mowgli has a leg up on his enemies due to many years of hard-won experience, during which time he learned, among other things, how to talk to snakes. He also, ostensibly, knows nothing of greed, so he’s perfectly happy to let the other men quarrel over those shiny, useless coins. That’s just what happens in the film’s final act. Three villagers strike out for the treasure, find it, and proceed to fracture over a pretty flimsily conceived sort of covetousness. One particular ruby-studded artifact becomes an object of fascination that can’t be split three ways. Two of the men die in the jungle, and the third goes mad, starting a dangerous fire. As in Bambi, a small island provides refuge. The wind changes, and the fire ends up wiping out the just-abandoned village.
The two films differ to some extent in their visual strategies. One is about naturalism, the other exoticism. Bambi creates a beautiful, multilayered world, albeit one in which the animals are subject to rampant Disney anthropomorphism. “Little April Shower” remains a virtuoso set piece, a perfect synthesis of music and nature. The live action Jungle Book, ironically enough, is more of a constructed affair, due to the limitations of the time and the obvious difficulties in getting actual snakes and crocodiles to perform their scenes. The imposing presence of dangerous creatures, and the daredevil physical performance by Sabu, are meant to be enough, and they mostly are. The fire starter, a man named Buldeo (Joseph Calleia) who also serves as the film’s narrator, experiences his psychotic break as a piercing collection of animal growls. The jungle, figuratively speaking, eats him alive.
Those deer in the opening to Jungle Book don’t really figure into the plot. Similarly, none of the deer’s natural predators appear in Bambi. (Friend Owl might give us pause, but he’s too much of a lovable curmudgeon.) So the ecological message in each case is somewhat sugarcoated, although in Jungle Book the food chain is at least acknowledged verbally. In any case, the appeal in both films is at once simple and always relevant: not only to respect nature, but to seek to preserve it. The act of producing a film is in itself an act of preservation. The self-perpetuating nature of these stories is evident from their endings. Bambi concludes with the birth of the next generation, Jungle Book with a wry “to be continued” of sorts addressed directly to the camera. There is some comfort to be found in those things that can’t be controlled or stopped.