The thing that I recall most fondly about the 1967 Disney animated movie is Bagheera the panther. Maybe it was because of the character’s sleek design (I’ve always liked that aesthetic), or maybe it was because of his sense of responsibility (Baloo’s laid-back nature bothered me, even as a child). Either way, Bagheera was the number one character I was looking forward to in this movie, and my hopes and expectations were more than met. Bagheera’s role in this movie was expanded beyond what he was given in the 1967 cartoon, and the new movie benefits from it.
To begin with, Baloo’s identity as “Poppa Bear” from the cartoon is nowhere to be seen. There’s no talk of adopting and raising Mowgli. There’s still a fondness between them, but it’s treated as more of a partnership and a friendship, which fits for the timeframe that the two know each other. Instead, it’s Bagheera who really becomes the father figure of the man-cub. Any time Mowgli is snatched into danger, it’s for Bagheera that he calls. It’s also on Bagheera that the camera tends to linger when there’s a turning point for Mowgli, but I will get to that in a moment.
With Bagheera taking a larger role, the movie really required top notch talent to carry the panther through his various emotions. Sir Ben Kingsley (voice), Justin Marks (screenwriter), and the animation team knocked it out of the park with Bagheera. In one of many interviews, Sir Kingsley described the character as having “authority, discipline, command, and then underneath that of course, tremendous loyalty and affection” (Collider). Through the animation, the script, and the voice work, this is exactly what we are shown.
One instance that stands out to me in particular comes as Bagheera and Baloo are scaling a cliff to rescue Mowgli from King Louie. Baloo, being terrified of heights, freezes partway up. In response, Bagheera stops to look Baloo in the eye and tell him, ““Look at me, look at nothing else but me. You’re doing fine. Keep your eyes up high.” It’s a beautifully small scene that adds a little bit more to the character, touching on both notions of discipline and affection in the same line.
Certain story changes from the cartoon also allow for these traits to surface. For example, Bagheera is required to be absent from Mowgli’s story in order for the boy to grow (Vox), but the way in which this happens in this movie is preferable to to the 1967 cartoon. In the original Disney adaptation, Bagheera leaves after one frayed nerve too many. In fact, Bagheera’s main obstacle to his loyalty in that version seems to be himself. He’s endlessly trying to untangle himself from the Mowgli mess only to come running back any time he hears of danger to the man-cub. In the 2016 script, physical barriers alone keep him from Mowgli’s side. This gives the audience a stronger sense of Bagheera’s loyalty.
There could be an argument made that Bagheera’s turmoil over Mowgli in the cartoon makes him a more complex character. Perhaps, but those shifts in mood seem to be more driven by the plot’s demands instead of the character’s motivations. The 2016 film flips that on its head. Bagheera is given his own character arc that helps propel the plot forward.
Spoilers ahead for The Jungle Book
In the 1967 cartoon, Bagheera is portrayed as the longsuffering mentor who ends up being right in the end. Even after Shere Khan is defeated, it is still right that Mowgli leaves the jungle. Sir Kingsley’s Bagheera, in contrast, has an arc similar to King Triton.
Lindsay Ellis, formerly known as the Nostalgia Chick, noted in a review that the one character who experiences growth in The Little Mermaid is King Triton (League of Super Critics). Whereas Ariel doesn’t learn anything over the course of the movie, Triton does, learning that he has to let his daughter go and that not all humans are bad. Bagheera goes through a similar process (though Mowgli is not without his own arc), learning that Mowgli does have a place in the jungle, even being a man-cub.
Having read a review which stated that Mowgli finds a third option between leaving the jungle and abandoning his “man tricks” (NC Register), I found myself expecting an exact replica of Triton’s arc: Bagheera steadfastly holds to his beliefs about man tricks, giving Mowgli the option to either act like a wolf or leave the jungle, only to have the film’s climax prove him wrong. I was expecting Bagheera’s change of heart to only come at the denouement, to put a final period on Mowgli’s tale. Instead, I was delightfully surprised when the turn in his character arc happened early enough to make an impact on the climax and on Mowgli’s arc as well.
Bagheera’s turning point occurs when he watches Mowgli use a man trick to rescue an infant elephant – a creature revered by the rest of the jungle – from a pit. Throughout this sequence, a moment of heroism from Mowgli which will save the jungle at the movie’s end, the camera spends a lot of time lingering on Bagheera. It first passes over him while he’s asleep, then again when Mowgli’s rush to save the elephant wakes him, and then multiple times over as Mowgli pulls the infant from the pit.
This scene comes immediately after Bagheera’s most impassioned lecture against the boy’s tricks. Most of Bagheera’s reprimands up to this point have been stern but calm. In Baloo’s cave, the reprimands have become snarling and furious. Finding Mowgli with the con artist Baloo might be part of the uptick in Bagheera’s anger, or it could be the recent news of Akela’s death, but no matter the source, this outburst seems to be placed very deliberately.
By contrasting his rage against his seeing Mowgli’s tricks put towards something good, the movie very clearly gives us a shift in Bagheera’s beliefs. Afterwards, he no longer speaks of Mowgli and his tricks being unnatural. While he still insists that Mowgli must leave the jungle, his reasons have altered to be entirely about the man-cub’s safety.
This comes to a head in the last battle against Shere Khan. Bagheera’s advice here is a complete reversal from his “I know you weren’t born a wolf, but could you at least try to act like one” lecture in the opening scene of the movie:
“You can’t fight him like a wolf. You’re not a wolf. Fight him like a man.”
This fight scene also solidifies Bagheera’s replacement of Baloo as a father figure for this movie. While Baloo does get to throwdown against Shere Khan, it’s Bagheera’s battle against the tiger that gets more fanfare. The camera tracks him racing across the plain to catch up to Shere Khan, and it takes the tiger batting him down twice before the fight ends. The frustrated rage of Shere Khan for losing the boy is also transferred to Bagheera.
In the 1967 film, it’s when Baloo causes Mowgli to escape Shere Khan’s grasp that he turns on the bear claiming, “I’ll kill you!” Here, it’s Bagheera’s relentless protection of Mowgli that makes Shere Khan take a moment out of his pursuit to pin the panther to the ground and declare, “Time to end this.”
Perhaps it’s just the Bagheera-fan in me talking, but I felt like this overall shift did the movie good. Bagheera was there from the beginning, both of the story, as narrator, and of Mowgli’s life in the jungle. It makes sense that the panther’s arc would match pace with the boy’s. It helps the movie keep a consistent emotional core, rather than introducing it halfway through the film. Baloo is still has his moments to shine (and shine he does) with the boy, and Raksha, the wolf mother, is given a number of powerful scenes, but ultimately the story’s core relationship is between Mowgli and Bagheera. And it works so very well.