Revisiting Chuck Jones’s Rudyard Kipling Adaptations (1975-1976)

One of the things I enjoy, albeit in a somewhat obsessive way I suppose, is when I go back to revisit something that made an impression on me from childhood, then discover that the thing I remembered has a much wider footprint than I realized, and that there’s an entire rabbit hole of interconnected information to dive into that I previously had no awareness of.

For example, I had been planning on eventually doing a series along the lines of “cartoons that kinda scared me as a child,” and the half-hour TV special Rikki-Tikki-Tavi was definitely on that list; but then not only did a listener fortuitously suggest I cover it before I even mentioned it to anyone, but I also found out that Rikki-Tikki-Tavi was only one of three animated adaptations of Rudyard Kipling stories that the legendary Chuck Jones had produced. Since I hadn’t heard of the other two and was pretty sure I’d never seen them, I decided to cover the whole “trilogy” in one fell swoop, starting with Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, since that’s the one I saw dozens of times as a kid.

The original source of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and the other two stories, of course, was Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 anthology The Jungle Book. Rikki is a plucky little mongoose who is rescued from drowning by a British family living in India, and the cute little fellow becomes their protector against the nefarious pair of cobras—Nag and Nagaina—that are hellbent on killing the family. This particular animated adaptation was made in 1975, when I was three years old, though I don’t think I saw it until a few years later. It sure did make an impression, though, probably because it didn’t shy away from talking about death, and Rikki as well as the humans are shown to be in actual mortal danger on several occasions.

I always loved the animation here, and I didn’t realize until recently that this was animated by Chuck Jones, who wrote, produced, and/or directed a metric shit-ton of classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts, which I adored as a kid (and still love today, if I’m being perfectly honest; I could probably do a whole other series about my favorite old Warner Bros. cartoons, and maybe I will someday). The animation on Rikki himself is especially cool, as the little guy has sort of sinister red eyes, but is overall adorable as hell, chittering and waggling his whiskers and whooshing around the place at light speed.

Although the cartoon isn’t as scary as I remembered from childhood (but what is, really), it does have a slight darkness to it that stuck with me when I was a kid. I recall being especially upset by the tailorbirds, Darzee and his wife, telling Rikki that one of their babies had fallen out of the nest and Nag had eaten him; of course the cartoon doesn’t show this, but the idea of it really affected little me.

I was also terrified by the possibility that a venomous snake—and I grew up in swampy-ass Florida, so I know a bit about venomous snakes, though I admit cobras aren’t indigenous to the region—could enter your house through a bathroom sluice and lie in wait for you, apparently in revenge. The scenes taking place at night were spooky too, particularly the bird’s-eye tableau of the darkened bathroom that showed Nag wrapped around a big jug in the corner, barely visible to whoever happened to wander in for a midnight wee.

The voices of the cobras—Nag’s voice provided by Orson Welles, who also narrated, and Nagaina voiced by the iconic June Foray—also creeped me out, because they were always doing a really ominous-sounding whisper. In fact, near the end of the short, when Nagaina has the human family cornered on the porch and is threatening to bite the son, Teddy, she hisses, “If you move, I strike! And if you do not move, I strike!” That shit stressed me out.

Other anxiety-inducing bits included Rikki killing the small dust snake, and later stomping on all of Nagaina’s eggs (which was only shown in shadow, but still disturbed me, probably because I always liked snakes and thought it was kind of a dick move for Rikki to kill her babies; Rikki was cute, though, so I was really conflicted about the whole situation). There’s also a sequence at the end where Rikki chases Nagaina down into her burrow and for a couple minutes you think Rikki has been killed; Darzee the tailorbird even sings a really annoying death dirge about it. As a matter of fact, when I rewatched the cartoon for this review, I could have sworn that Rikki died at the end and that was what had caused it to stick with me, but no, he’s fine. He kills the cobras and saves the family and everyone lives happily ever after…except the cobras and their babies, and the dust snake, and the baby tailorbird that got eaten. But everybody else is golden.

Next up is The White Seal, which came out in the same year of 1975. It also featured the voice of June Foray, but this time around was narrated by Roddy McDowall, who provided most of the other character voices as well. Watching it now, I’m certain I never saw this as a kid (you can see it on Amazon Prime), but if I had, I definitely would have found parts of it scarier than Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, mainly because it features sharks and really big sea creatures, which always frightened the piss out of me when I was little.

The action takes place in a spot called Novastoshnah on the island of St. Paul’s in the Bering Sea between Russia and Alaska. There’s a cranky big bull seal named Sea Catch who has a wife named Matkah. Matkah gives birth to a pup she calls Kotick, who is snow white, unlike all the other brown seals. The first part of the story shows Kotick growing up and learning to swim, and Matkah teaching him how to avoid getting eaten by sharks. He also talks to a horrifyingly massive whale who says he’s 87 feet long but otherwise seems friendly, even though in real life I’m pretty sure that whale would have snacked on Kotick just as soon as look at him.

Everything seems pretty much chill for a while (other than the scary sharks, that is; particularly the hammerhead, which is terrifying) until Kotick decides to follow a boat, not really knowing what it is. His mom finds him before anything bad can happen, but she warns him that he always has to stay away from boats, because boats are full of men, and men are the bloody worst. As illustration, the boat leaves a slick of garbage in its wake (yep, that’s men all right), and Matkah tells Kotick that he’ll be able to recognize men by their habit of wearing the skins of dead seals. Yikes.

Not long after, Kotick is hanging out on another island with all the young bulls, and men do indeed come, clad in sealskins with clubs raised, and I was like OH NOOOOO WTF CHUCK JONES, but thankfully, Kotick pops out and goes ham on the guys, and because he’s white and is backlit by some shadowy hellfire animation, the dimbulb men think he’s a ghost seal come to reckon with them for their wanton seal murder and they beat feet. Crisis averted. Not that I really thought a kids’ cartoon was going to show guys bashing in seal heads with clubs, but it’s a testament to the fuckedupedness of the 1970s that I wasn’t entirely confident that I wasn’t going to see that either.

The rest of the story details Kotick’s quest to find the Sea Cow, who knows where there’s an island where men don’t go. Kotick finally finds it and all the seals go there and live in safety forever after, except for all the sharks that want to eat them.

I haven’t read the original story this was based on, but it seems it was much more graphic in its detailing of the aftermath of a seal hunt; the website I read said that if you were reading it to children, you might want to skip over that part. Likewise with the racism against the Inuit, which the story categorizes as “not clean.”

Lastly, I watched 1976’s Mowgli’s Brothers, which I don’t think I ever saw back in the day either, although it was in many ways very familiar still, as it covered much of the same ground as Disney’s 1967 animated film The Jungle Book. Like The White Seal, this 1976 short—originally broadcast on CBS—was voiced by Roddy McDowall and June Foray, but unlike The White Seal, Mowgli’s Brothers seemed to largely shy away from more overtly frightening imagery, excising the scary giant snake Kaa from the tale entirely, for example (which was a shame, since Kaa was my favorite character from the 1967 adaptation), and making the tiger Shere Khan much less intimidating than he was in the Disney version (and in the original story, I presume).

Rama and Raksha are a couple of wolves with a litter of cubs, living among the Seeonee Pack. One evening, a naked human baby wanders into their den, pursued by Shere Khan, who had been chasing the child’s parents. Killing humans is against the Law of the Jungle, as it threatens to bring the wrath of man’s guns and fire down on all the denizens of said jungle, but Shere Khan evidently gives no fucks, and insists that the “man-cub” be given to him as a delicious hors d’oeuvre.

The Wolf Mother thinks the little bugger is cute, though, as the kid boldly scuttles in among the wolf cubs and starts nursing from one of her teats (weird), so she puts her paw down and runs the tiger off, talking smack about him being a cattle-killer, which is apparently a really loser thing to be. Fun fact: in the original story, Shere Khan is literally lame, as in, he has a bum leg. He’s also a normal-colored (read: orange) tiger, as far as I know, though in this 1976 version he’s a white tiger, for some reason. Shere Khan also has an ass-kissing lackey, by the way, a cross-eyed jackal named Tabaqui, who looks like Wile E. Coyote after a month-long meth binge.

There’s a meeting of the Council to determine whether Mowgli (actually Mowgli the Frog, so named because of his lack of hair) is going to be let into the pack, and though none of the wolves are all that enthused, Baloo the bear speaks up for him, promising to teach him the Law of the Jungle, and the black panther Bagheera offers the wolves the fresh carcass of a bull he just killed if they’ll let Mowgli hang with them, as he’s also taken something of a shine to the chubby rugrat and his pert little behind.

The story then follows similar beats to The Jungle Book, minus the giant python and the bull elephant and the kidnapping monkeys, as Mowgli grows up among the wolves (and the bear and the panther) and has his life put on the line by the aging of the pack’s leader Akela and the younger wolf hunters being swayed by Shere Khan into overthrowing Akela and feeding Mowgli to the cantankerous tiger. As in the original story, Mowgli uses his mastery of fire against Shere Khan, and eventually leaves his friends in the jungle to be with his own kind in the Man-Village.

This one wasn’t nearly as dark as the other two adaptations; yes, there was the threat of death, but no one really got terribly hurt in the end, and the big bad of the piece, Shere Khan, got run off with nothing but a singed butt for all his villainy. There was nothing like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi‘s multiple dead snakes, crushed snake eggs with implied snakelet deaths, and devoured baby bird; and also nothing like the disturbing scenes of massive, toothy sharks or terrified seals cowering under raised clubs, like in The White Seal. Still, it was cool to see a Chuck Jones-infused turn at The Jungle Book, which I’d only ever seen done by Disney animators.

Hopefully I’ll get around to doing some more breakdowns of scary animated films from the 1970s and 80s, because there are definitely some more I’d like to cover. But until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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