"Oh, oobee doo / 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."
- King Louie (Louis Prima), The Jungle Book (1967)
Walt Disney Productions took certain liberties with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book for its 1967 adaptation. In addition to jettisoning several stories also set in the wilds of India, the most curious addition comes in the form of King Louie, ruler of the monkeys.
The abduction of human protagonist Mowgli by the Bandar-log (monkey people) in Kipling’s text forms the central narrative thrust of the tale “Kaa’s Hunting,” and—while Disney included the narrative beat of Baloo the Bear and Bagheera the Panther coming to his aid—King Louie is conspicuously absent. In fact, Kipling describes the Bandar-log as quite anarchical:
“And then, and then, they gave me nuts and pleasant things to eat, and they—they carried me in their arms up to the top of the trees and said I was their blood brother except that I had no tail, and should be their leader some day.”
“They have no leader,” said Bagheera. “They lie. They have always lied.”*
In the film, monkeys kidnap Mowgli and bring the boy to King Louie’s court, where he offers to help him stay in the jungle if he will share the secret of “man’s red flower”: fire. Since Mowgli was raised by wolves, he lacks this knowledge, and is rescued in the nick of time by his friends.
The original story treatment for the film did include the addition of a larger, tailless, supervisory ape, but neither designation as King Louie, nor his depiction as an orangutan, were specified. As production veered further from Kipling’s darker source material and into lighthearted fun, the powers that be suggested a popular jazzman voice the new character. Plans for Louis Armstrong to voice the ape leader were abandoned when one pointed out the problematic optics of casting a black person as an ape (surprisingly #woke for the era), so the production went with a different Louis: Italian American New Orleans native Louis Prima.
It is unclear just why King Louie was animated as an orangutan. Orangutans are not found in India at all; the three extant species are found far away from the subcontinent on Borneo and Sumatra (islands belonging to Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia). An attempt to rectify this discrepancy was made in the 2016 live-action adaptation of the animated film, wherein a Christopher Walken-voiced King Louie was modeled after a twelve foot tall Gigantopithecus blacki. It’s a curious cryptozoological solve for a mainstream film; not only is depicting a relict hominid in 19th century India a bold creative move, but it is impossible to escape the decades of speculation that Sasquatch might be a relict Gigantopithecus.
The decision to make King Louie a Gigantopithecus, however interesting, is still deliberate. It remains little discussed that the original 1967 The Jungle Book, with its representation of King Louie as an orangutan, has a tangential, accidental cryptozoological angle as well.
In 2003 the discovery of “Hobbit” bones on the Indonesian island of Flores sent shockwaves through the anthropologic and cryptozoological communities in equal measure. The remains were of Homo floresiensis, a diminutive hominin standing just 1.1 m (3’7”). Speculation began to spread: could early man have shared the island with this species?**
Regardless of whether or not contact was ever made, Flores islanders seem to at least maintain an ancestral memory of Homo floresiensis. Native lore describes the Ebu Gogo, a race of short, fast, hairy humanoids. According to an ethnographic interview with Flores islander Julius Poi in Gregory Forth’s Images of the Wildman in Southeast Asia: An Anthropological Perspective: “Ebu gogo knew no tools or weapons nor did they use fire. They ate their food raw. They never bathed and therefore smelled very bad; people could detect them by their smell.” According to tradition, the Ebu Gogo still inhabit Flores, begging the question whether relict Hobbits might not still be on the island.
Another compelling bit of Ebu Gogo superstition is that they abduct children. Forth writes:
A story told by ‘Ua villagers thus describes how the wildmen of Lia ‘Ua abducted two small children named Sedho and Lilo. According to one variant, as the children grew tired of eating only the raw food given them by the ebu gogo, they returned home to request fire; however, their distraught parents naturally kept them and they never did return to the wildmen’s cave. According to another version, the ebu gogo captured the children specifically as a way of acquiring fire for themselves, therafter sending the abductee to request a fire-brand from the nearest human habitation… [emphasis mine – J.C.]
To draw the point clearly, King Louie is an orangutan, native to Indonesia, who abducts a child for the acquisition of fire; the Ebu Gogo are alleged humanoids native to Indonesia known for kidnapping children to attain fire. It should be fairly pointed out that Flores is not particularly near Borneo or Sumatra—but it is a good deal closer than India.
It is unclear what the King Louie/Ebu Gogo connection means, if anything, or if both simply represent an expression of the Wildman archetype.
According to Forth, the Ebu Gogo myth “has an obvious allegorical quality: as the Nage themselves articulated, it was owing to their stupidity that the ebu gogo were never able to obtain fire (and, one might infer, were incapable of attaining the cultural condition, partly symbolized by fire, that confers complete humanity).”
In other words, the Ebu Gogo “just wanna be like us.”
*Sounds like one of about a hundred stories I ran into researching A Trojan Feast…
**From Wikipedia: “This hominin had originally been considered to be remarkable for its survival until relatively recent times, only 12,000 years ago. However, more extensive stratigraphic and chronological work has pushed the dating of the most recent evidence of their existence back to 50,000 years ago.”