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Film Review: Mowgli’s Brothers (1976)

Always Happy to Discover Gems Like This

Photo courtesy of New Times San Luis Obispo

Unlike my other entries thus far, Mowgli’s Brothers is a rather short film — a television animated special, to be exact. I first heard about it through the Nostalgia Critic when he mentioned it in his Disneycember review on Disney’s The Jungle Book. Naturally, I got curious. It’s supposed to be a pretty accurate adaptation of the original story by Rudyard Kipling; but to be honest, I haven’t read the book, so don’t expect any comparisons to be drawn in this review. With all that said, let’s begin.

Production History

Mowgli’s Brothers is a 25-minute cartoon that aired on February 11, 1976 by the late and great Chuck Jones (yes, the same guy who did animations for The Looney Tunes. The man’s a legend.) It’s based specifically on the first chapter of the aforementioned book, hence why it’s this short. All the male characters, including the narrator, were voiced by Roddy McDowall. And, well, that’s about all I can muster up. Not much else is known about the special, other than its initial debut on the Columbia Broadcasting System, its 1985 VHS release by Family Home Entertainment, and its 1999 DVD release by Lionsgate. Although, it may please you to know that you don’t have to scavenge for copies of the film. Look no further than YouTube, where you can watch it free of charge.

What's the Story?

A wolf couple raising newborn cubs finds out that a tiger named Shere Khan is hunting in their part of the jungle. They are upset about this, because they believe he is hunting man, which will very likely garner the attention of the humans living in a nearby village. Then, as if by chance, a little boy appears in front of their den. They protect him from the hungry Shere Khan and wish to take him in as their own, but not before gaining approval from their wolf council. With some input from Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther, the boy is accepted into the pack, and is named Mowgli.

As Mowgli is growing up under the tutorage of Baloo and Bagheera, Shere Khan formulates a plan with his henchman, Tabaqui the jackal, to turn all the wolves against their aging leader Akela by means of revenge. When Mowgli is eleven years old, Bagheera reveals to him what Shere Khan has been up to, and that he must be stopped at all costs. That’s not all, however; Bagheera also tells him that he will eventually have to reunite with his own kind in order to try and prevent further conflict between man and nature, much to Mowgli’s dismay. How do Mowgli and company take down the tyrannical tiger? Will Mowgli heed Bagheera’s advice and live out the rest of his life with humans?

My Thoughts on the Film

This short is an example of when sentient creatures are written correctly (yes, I’m counting Mowgli in this as well, due to his wild upbringing). Even though the film does depict the passivity of the younger wolves who follow Shere Khan (because let’s be honest: if we were to relate this back to reality, people can be easily impressionable), the majority of the characters possess a sense of logic and morality. A prime example of the former is when the wolf couple rationalizes their abstinence from killing humans, for they know that man will reciprocate by hunting them for food and extracting their resources. This is logical thinking that demonstrates their desire to minimize conflict and strengthen their chance for survival.

As for the latter, it is seen in the council’s decision to not dismiss Mowgli as nothing more than jungle fodder, and to actually give him a chance to develop animalistic instincts so that he could someday lead the pack. They know full well that he’s out of his environment, but they nevertheless have enough of a heart to give him the same care as they do their own cubs. Moreover, they teach him to fend for himself, which is the greatest gift you could give to someone who is left with nothing.

Mowgli himself isn’t a complete blank slate here. While he is closely guided by Bagheera (Baloo, surprisingly, doesn’t have that big of a role in this film), he is still able to think for himself, as shown in many scenarios. He knows when to be assertive and intimidating towards Shere Khan and the other wolves, but he’s also compassionate when tending to his family members. He can be mischievous, as indicated in his pranks on Shere Khan and Tabaqui, but knows to never take his troublemaking too far to the point of setting them off (although this boundary is influenced a fair bit by Bagheera).

Unlike many cartoon child characters, this version of Mowgli is given clear dimensions to his personality. He is quite mature for a young boy in this adaptation, but it makes sense given the situation he’s in as well as the choices he has to make. He is surrounded by death traps at every curb, which means that he needs to be strategic and resourceful, like the rest of his pack.

His turmoil becomes apparent when he has to decide between two worlds, given what’s at stake. I like the reasoning Bagheera gives for going back: it is ultimately safer for him to be with his kind. It shows just how complex the issue is; while Mowgli is clearly well adapted to the jungle, having him return to humanity as soon as possible might be for the better, so that he’s not discovered later and presumed to have been imperiled by the animals. A bigger reason still, however, is for him to potentially teach humans the jungle's laws and why they shouldn’t needlessly place nature in harm's way.

The underlying issue in all this is that Mowgli would have to adjust to an entirely different culture, adding a new layer to the events that might take place after the main story. None of this is black and white, and change obviously won’t occur without some degree of assimilation. Just like how we are given context for the jungle mentality, Mowgli would need to understand how people function before he is able to engage with them diplomatically.

Speaking of black and white, the cast as a whole lies somewhere in the grey area. While it can be argued that there are depictions of animal cruelty in this film, because this is a fantasy setting where we are dealing with personified creatures, it works effectively to show that there’s a time and a place for both civility and aggression respectively if one of the two options doesn’t solve the problem.

This in and of itself is controversial and thus debatable, though the film does well in addressing the issue and allowing for such discussion to take place among viewers. Give credit where credit is due; cartoons are typically targeted towards children, but this one has plenty of material for the adults to get invested in as well. While it is obvious who the main antagonist is, as I’ve discussed, other characters display instances of deviance, too.

The film wastes very little time getting to the conflict, and gives us just enough backstory to establish the gravity of the situation. It is self-contained and refrains from inserting filler, save the montage of Mowgli causing mischief, although it does provide comedic relief and segues seamlessly into Bagheera’s big reveal. The dialogue is very poetic and political, all while remaining translatable for a younger audience. The film takes a darker turn, portraying various levels of cynicism harboured by all the characters, as well as mild cartoon violence.

My two favourite characters would have to be the mother wolf and Bagheera. The mother is doting, but she can also pack a punch when telling Shere Khan off. Bagheera maintains composure, and is respectable as the voice of reason in this cast. These characters are proactive in setting things straight while retaining incredibly likeable and "atmospheric" personalities. The same can generally be said for the others, who present a great balance between laid back performances and a pure scare fest.

For the most part, McDowall does a fantastic job with his voiceovers: Tabaqui is a sleazy yet cowardly minion; Akela is a wise yet soft-spoken leader, and Shere Khan is a menacing and bloodthirsty predator. Shere Khan, however, is quite underplayed in this story. I know I said that the film gives enough context, but I wish that Shere Khan himself had more screen time. It is implied that there’s more to his story, and I definitely don’t condone shoehorning villains in visual media just for the sake of being evil, so it would’ve been nice had that been explored further.

The film isn’t without a few other setbacks. While McDowall had the ability to produce a range of voices, he unfortunately didn’t do Mowgli’s justice. It would’ve been different if he were just a side character, as you wouldn’t have to hear him as often, but Mowgli’s voice was just off putting here. He sounds much older than he should; they should have brought in a teenager at the very least to provide a more compelling voice. The art style is classic Chuck Jones, with the contrasting colours, curly smiles and "doe" eyes. However, there are times when the animations don’t match up with the characters’ actions, and their actions/lips aren’t always synced up with their lines.

I give it a pass though, because it’s decent enough for visual appeal's sake, and the script is truly the heart of this production. We also have to remember that it’s over forty years old and did not have a large team behind it at the time.

My Verdict:

If you’ve got half an hour to spare, kids to entertain, and/or crave some good old fashioned pencil-drawn animation, look no further than Mowgli's Brothers.