Fictional Tigers: Shere Khan

by tigermanifesto


I have not seen the entirety of Walt Disney’s 1967 film The Jungle Book since leaving the Earth. There is also a long waiting period on ordering film prints for reasons that have not yet been made clear to me. This only adds to my suspicions about this being a heaven–if Netflix is more efficient and its representatives more courteous than a divine being’s, what kind of…ah, but I digress. I am currently engaged in an analysis of several fictional tigers that have achieved a large degree of mass awareness. Rudyard Kipling’s original Shere Khan was and is, of course, a significant and worthy addition to this canon, but that is not the character under scrutiny this time. Instead, I will be focusing on a figure that is more obviously relevant and iconic for my reading public, that of Disney’s film portrayal.

Shere Khan here is a composite of an appearance provided by designer Milt Kahl and the voice of George Sanders. The former is responsible for animating central characters in many of the early Disney films including Pinocchio, the Lady and the Tramp, Prince Philip, and the llama from Melody Time. George Sanders’ career is no less illustrious, spanning around four decades and including roles in All About Eve and Rebecca. Both bring a similar perspective on how the tiger that is Shere Khan interacts with his surroundings. Sticking to appearance and sound for a moment, we’ll look at each in turn before looking into how this imperious figure factors into the larger picture(s) of the film.

Kahl’s Design:

The body is massive and powerful, with huge paws, a somewhat flattened, solid cranium, large muzzle, and thin stripes. The Khan’s jaw protrudes sharply and almost gives the appearance of an underbite. The eyes are drawn as menacing slits colored with yellow and finished with tiny dot pupils.The only fur on the body that is rendered as real hair as opposed to flat color is the “hedge” around each side of top part of the face, which helps establish a more human facial structure. The face does, in fact, resemble that of George Sanders, who had a similarly prominent jaw and nose and whose hair pushed out around his head, exposing a receding hairline. Human eyebrows have been added for convenience. His tail is expressively animated and rendered as flexible, but also makes several maneuvers that no tail I know can do, such as bending at right angles in certain spots. Claws are improbably long and perfectly cut, giving us some insights into this cat’s probable grooming habits (look at my own claws for a perfect contrast).

When he first appears, the imposing tiger stalks a deer and exhibits a casual naturalism. Documents about the production of the film indicate that Kahl watched documentary footage of felines in order to capture their physicality accurately. Of course, being an animated character and an anthropomorphized animal, the Khan has to speak and have reasonable conversations with other animals. During dialogue scenes, most of the naturalism melts away and the animators simply contort his anatomy in apparently possible ways so the audience maintains the illusion that this is still a tiger but also believe that he could speak and make facial expressions that communicate certain things to humans. Tigers are not interested in facial expressions or tone of voice, at least not in the way humans are. If tigers were to construct a meaningful medium of artistic communication, it would probably involve more aural and scent cues, perhaps a form of live theatre, but to most tigers Shere Khan seems unspeakably alien at times. That said, from a more human perspective, there is a particular view of “tigerness” that peaks through the exaggerations. This tiger is an intimidating force but one that is capable of intensity, quiet, and cunning. Its physique is sharp, its face suitably human to identify with but distorted and catlike enough to be unsettling. Khan’s elegance in motion conveys many stereotypes of cats in general and tigers in particular. Silent, diabolical, and slender, but powerful and savage. This will bear out well in the film’s own narrative.

As for the general style, this appearance definitely fits into the Disney films that first experimented with xerography in order to make animation more efficient and fluid. Outlines are sketchy and thin, and the entire appearance is far more angular and even jagged than earlier depictions of animals in Disney animation.

It should be noted that the aura of power and authority contradicts the depiction in the original Jungle Book, where Shere Khan is mocked for having a lame leg. Because Disney simplified and distilled Kipling’s book and focused on Khan as the villain, they obviously felt they couldn’t let him be anything less than an imposing physical presence. I would disagree with that, and I’ll get to the reasons why in a moment.

Sanders’ Voice:

I would recommend listening to the voice before reading this. It’s sonorous, authoritative, and, importantly since this was made for American audiences, British. Before I comment on why that last point is so vital, I will make some more general comments on the vocal performance. It has a fluidity and ease to it, and it is also congruent with Kahl’s design work. It has a highly refined and superficial sophistication to it that is directed entirely toward more basic desires. Just as the suave and beautiful exterior is essentially there to help the tiger kill and eat poor baby deer, so the voice is one that probes, that lures and traps with its courtesies. I love listening to it. It also properly establishes Khan as more of a threat: if this character is so much more physically powerful than the human and has what seems like a mind to match, then our little slab of human bacon is in serious trouble, ya hear?

I believe we have established the character as much as we can without much reference to his actual doings. Now to the doings.

In The Jungle Book:

As a young tiger, just barely become fluent in English and beginning to walk upright and buy carcasses diced into pieces at the butcher instead of hunting for them myself, I saw this film. It seemed a natural bridge between my home life in the Indian forest preserves and the new human life I was about to enter into.

When I did watch the film, however, I kept waiting for the tiger to appear. There are rumors and brief mentions at the wolves’ council. The council chooses to ostracize the young human in their protection because of this implied threat. Bagheera, the wise but stodgy panther and mentor, admonishes Mowgli to fear Shere Khan, to avoid any encounter. Two thirds of the film pass. I watch the young boy “go native,” embrace his animal nature, and join ranks with a hedonistic bear possessed of an impressively buoyant gut. Throughout, my younger self is wondering “when is the tiger going to get here?” It is not that I ever thought of Shere Khan as the protagonist; even when I had only just discovered films I knew that I would not see many tigers portrayed heroes. It did, however, feel as though Jungle Book was dragging its heels, satiating the audience with bit-part troublemakers like Kaa and King Louis. These were warped animals but not fearful ones. Kaa had his hypnotism and silver tongue, and Louis his raucous charm and misplaced ambitions, but their names did not inspire the same dread. Only the striped one would do.

What are we to do with this period of tense waiting? I think that the creators of the film do an excellent job of building anticipation. Where my young self thought of this as simple padding (some of it might be padding, but I’ll leave that aside) I now appreciate the delayed gratification and the threat that mystery presents. The jungle is fundamentally unknown and Shere Khan is a personification, a name for all that is savage and threatening to Mowgli. All the animals shiver at his name, and are offended, perhaps secretly ashamed, when their young human protege trumpets his lack of fear. I should amend my previous statement: not all the animals fear Shere Khan. The elephants, for instance, seem totally unperturbed by the tiger’s immediate presence. That said, their lack of concern comes from their unparalleled size and strength, and is accompanied by a lack of concern, an indifference for their environment that is humorously embodied in their “stamping and crushing” the underbrush. Concerned with the drills and formalities of a military, the elephant Dawn Patrol forgets that they are supposed to be patrolling for something. 

Mowgli’s is a more personal courage, born both from naivety and–this is what I think the film is saying–an innate human desire and obligation to tame nature. It’s not a coincidence that the author of The Jungle Book also composed a poem called “The White Man’s Burden.” Mowgli is not a white person, but he is a human, and therefore his destiny is to subdue and transcend nature, to the envy (King Louis) and undoing (Shere Khan) of all of his animal foes.

The great tiger, then, is for most of the film a device to move the story forward. Writers need some justification for their plots, or else we won’t believe them. The Jungle Book uses Khan to get Mowgli out of the wolf pack and into danger. At a certain point, however, the filmmakers have to show us the real thing. Luckily, the real thing is more than impressive enough to justify the long buildup. Physical prowess, mental quickness, a certain measure of wit–these are all arrayed against humans and more specifically against the human use of fire. Shere Khan is a bit of an extreme Luddite. He kills all humans because he fears that their technological superiority and rapacious appetites will displace him from his perch at the top of the food chain. Beyond the strength and deceit, the defining personality trait for our striped brother is fear. A fear that is justified because, as proved by how the film ends, in this world the humans always get what they want. They have mastered nature and the only appropriate response for nature to have is to fear their new overlords. Animals can seek to be human and they can try to kill the humans but there is no possibility of victory.

The fall of a tiger, the rise of humanity.

Humans are not animals in this scenario. Mowgli, having used fire to banish the tiger into the grasslands, is compelled by, what else, the female form, back to human civilization. For me, there was a poignancy to the end of the film. Earlier it is mentioned that Mowgli will grow up to be a hunter and probably kill many of the jungle animals. It is somewhat absurd, then, that Bagheera and Baloo can dance so triumphantly into the end credits. Their respective species are about to get a royal taste of habitat destruction thanks to fertile and productive humans like the one they have just saved. One particularly fascinating way to look at this response is to say that the animals accept their place. There they are, and they cannot enter the village nor deny humankind its will. So they dance in an absurd celebration in the face of certain devastation. Parallels between this and the indigenous experience of colonization could also be drawn, but I’ll let that lie.

I am not sure I agree with that assessment entirely, but there is a sad kind of truth in that interpretation, I feel. Being a tiger who died the way he did, who used to live among other tigers who died of starvation and gunshot wounds, I think I understand this film differently from others. I think that Shere Khan is something of a martyr for our own kind, a final bastion of resistance, the last of our kind refined to rule. I admire the fact that he is so compelling a character. Despite being unsuccessful at the end, mastered by fear and unable to complete his mission, I think he is more representative of tigers as a whole than most others in human fiction. Sense his strength, watch him stalk, see and hear the beauty of his motion and his voice. Look past his violent tendencies for just a moment and see that he is a tragic figure and an icon for many young tigers (who speak English) to look up to.