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