Filmed in Technicolor in 1942 Jungle Book is a fairly loose adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s famous collection of short stories about a boy living in a small village in India who, as a toddler, wanders away into the nearby jungle and ends up being raised by a pack of wolves. He is stalked by a man-eating tiger named Shere Khan but eventually turns the tables on the evil cat and the hunted becomes the hunter. He also befriends a black panther named Bagheera and a thirty-foot python named Kaa. The other main character from the books, Baloo the kindhearted, absent-minded brown bear who teaches the law of the jungle to all the young wolf cubs, is reduced to a cameo appearance.
The plot is an amalgam of several of the stories from Kipling’s book. Mowgli’s revenge against Shere Khan is shown as well as his dealings with the villagers where Mowgli is adopted by the kindly Messua who is, in reality, his natural mother. Mowgli learns to speak the human tongue but keeps sacred the law of the jungle. He begins a relationship with a local merchant’s daughter; together they discover an immense treasure hidden beneath the ruins of an ancient lost city in the jungle. This leads to the inevitable final conflict between man and nature.
The fact that actual animals were used in the movie certainly adds to the realism. The exceptions are Kaa and a large crocodile, which are both obviously fake.
The cinematography is quite good and even earned an Academy Award nomination, but it is the inspired casting of Sabu as Mowgli that makes Jungle Book the classic action/adventure movie that it is. He is the perfect physical embodiment of the part and he looks completely at ease riding through the village on the back of a brahma bull, or wading down a jungle stream perched on an elephant, or clutching at the knife around his neck, fiercely growling at Shere Khan, ‘I’m not afraid of you – now that I have my tooth!’
The Walt Disney cartoon may be more well-known today but it is this original live-action version that more accurately and thrillingly brings to life Kipling’s famous stories.