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How Disney's New 'Jungle Book' Can Overcome Book's Racist Baggage

Yahoo Movies

How Disney's New 'Jungle Book' Can Overcome Book's Racist Baggage

King Louie of the Apes, right, in 'The Jungle Book,' 1967 (Everett Collection/Walt Disney Studios)

Of all the films Disney has dug out of its classics collection closet for the live-action reboot treatment,  "The Jungle Book" is by far the most likely to cause the studio worries and strife — as Baloo the Bear might chime.

Both Rudyard Kipling's original book, which was written from a British colonialist perspective, and Disney's own animated adaptation have long been slammed for having racist overtones. If the studio hopes to overcome these perceptions and offer up a 21st century-friendly rendition this go-round, it'll take a whole lot more work than just punching up the old material with snazzy costumes and new-age visual effects.

"One of the main reasons that 'The Jungle Book' needs to be rebooted is to fix the things that became controversial not long after it was released in 1967," Robert Thompson, pop culture expert and media professor at Syracuse University, tells Yahoo Movies.

(Everett Collection/Walt Disney Studios)

By giving the green light to the new incarnation, hiring Jon Favreau to direct, and tapping a diverse group of A-listers to star – recent Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o ("12 Years a Slave") and Scarlett Johansson ("Avengers: Age of Ultron") are in talks to join Idris Elba ("Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom") on the developing cast list – Thompson suspects Disney is up to the task and must believe the material "is salvageable."

So, what are some of the "Bare Necessities" of a "Jungle Book" overhaul?

"The first Disney 'Jungle Book' was based on Kipling; the next one will be based on the movie, so it'll be another generation removed from Kipling, which will help," Thompson says.

Stepping away from Kipling's imperialist vision is, however, just the beginning, especially since it was one of the House of Mouse's own story concoctions which caused the most discontent over their first adaptation.

The cartoon's King Louie (which did not stem from the pages of Kipling's original) was a jazzy ape whose language skills were considered much less refined than those of the film's other animals and who sang "I Wanna Be Like You" to the orphaned human boy Mowgli. The character is widely panned as exemplifying "negative racial stereotyping" and connoting inequality between African-Americans and Caucasians.

While filmmakers initially tried to sidestep perceptions of racism with King Louie by casting an Italian-American singer (Louis Prima) in the role rather than Louis Armstrong, whom the part was originally written for, the character still strongly violated the ethos of social progress.

"King Louie was going to be a problem either way," opines Thompson. "The original choice would have been offensive – Louis Armstrong animated as an ape. The choice they went with had a minstrel show feel to it, also offensive."

[Related: 7 Things You Might Not Know About 'The Jungle Book']

Simply whitewash-casting the unfortunately caricaturish character wasn't nearly enough to mask the inherent problems with King Louie the first time around, and it certainly will not work for Disney's renewal. Instead, there'll need to be some fundamental adjustments made – though experts caution against a complete disavowal of the banana-loving primate.

"The King Louie character can have his speaking mannerisms updated in a way that suggests he speaks in a manner similar to the other characters," Jeffrey M. McCall, Professor of Communication at DePauw University, tells Yahoo Movies. "I don't think the upcoming film needs a total scrubbing, or at some point it would no longer be loyal to the original story. But it can be updated with a keener eye to avoiding stereotypical language or behaviors that could be translatable to ethnic definition."

While Disney might not need to scrap King Louie altogether to progress, his performance of the hot-button scat tune "I Wanna Be Like You" might be ripe for total lyrical retooling, if not removal altogether. One can only imagine the outrage that would invariably follow if lines like "I wanna be like you/I wanna walk like you/Talk like you, too/You'll see it's true/An ape like me/Can learn to be human too" remained intact in the new take. That'd prick a few raw paws for sure.

Meanwhile, another big point of action might be to redress the controversial "Jungle Book" plot point of young Mowgli being told he could not live with Baloo the Bear because different species should keep to themselves. Given the historical framework of the film's mid-'60s release, smack dab in the middle of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, this was perceived as heavily suggestive of pro-segregation principles. Perhaps Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks could just conjure up another narrative direction altogether for plucking Mowgli away from the wild to avoid this particularly messy aspect.

[Related: 'The Jungle Book' Story Man Floyd Norman Reflects on Mr. Disney's Last Film]

It's worth noting that the new "Jungle Book" flick won't just have to overcome the issues of racism plaguing the 1967 animated version. The movie was also quite problematic for those who decried the lack of central female characters (there were just three, and one didn't even speak). With its recent casting decisions, though, it looks like Disney just may have a remedy for that issue by way of some simple swapping.

While Nyong'o's role as the mother wolf Rachka was one of the three femmes included in the original, Johansson's part as the hypnotic python Kaa was originally voiced by a man. (On a similar note of diversification, Idris Elba's role as the villainous tiger Shere Khan belonged to a white actor in the prior version.)

To supplement, if needed, the film could also take a leaf from the playbook of theatrical director Mary Zimmerman, who recently revived "The Jungle Book" for the stage and added in a few new animal characters in order to narrow the gender gap.

Disney's live-action and CGI hybrid re-imagining of "The Jungle Book," one of two modern-day re-tellings of the Rudyard Kipling adventure tale current underway, will hit theaters on Oct. 29, 2015. The other, housed by Warner Bros., will be helmed by Andy Serkis and has no firm release date at this time.