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Disney Sundays: The Jungle Book (1967)

          There’s quite a bit of excitement for this upcoming Jungle Book remake by Jon Favreau. It’s got a great cast including Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, and Christopher Walken as King Louie. How does that not sound great? Parts of it do, and there’s plenty in Rudyard Kipling’s book that’s never been filmed, but we’ve had a couple remakes of this particular story already. Not to mention the trailer showed it’s mostly sticking to the previous Disney film, has an over-reliance on unconvincing CGI and the recent trend of Disney remakes have left a lot to be desired. Disney’s original version of this story already leaves an impression with characters and a tone all its own. I just can’t see the director of Iron Man recapturing that.
          The Jungle Book is another one of those stories that because of a lot of dark elements, you wouldn’t think suitable for a kids movie, if not for the fact that the main character is a child. In fact Kipling’s book concerns a number of stories set in the jungle with a number of different characters, only some of whom appear in the Disney movie. However upon re-watching said Disney movie I was surprised to discover it’s a lot more episodic than I remember thus keeping true to part of the nature of the book if not always its style.
          A black panther in the Indian jungles called Bagheera discovers an abandoned orphan boy who he dispatches to a pack of wolves to raise. A number of years later the man-hating tiger Shere Khan returns to the jungle and the wolves agree that the boy called Mowgli should be returned to the human village with Bagheera volunteering to carry this out. However on the way they run into the free-spirited laid-back bear Baloo who takes it upon himself to raise Mowgli and teach the eager “man-cub” to appreciate life in the jungle. And they meet plenty of colourful characters and adventures as they bond, all the while Baloo having to face the fact that Mowgli will eventually have to return to the world of humans.
          Despite the plot having a consistent direction, we’re privy to a number of detours that both benefit the overarching story but are also unnecessary. However, they are enjoyable. We don’t need to devote ten minutes to military elephants just to include Kipling’s satire of the British army or their occupation of India. But it is fun, not least because Disney’s Imperialist Britain stereotypes still amuse me. Especially as a kid I loved the ridiculousness of the elephant hierarchy and their strict regimental discipline; and of course, taking the piss out of authority figures in a terrifically British way. The bit with the vultures, Kaa, and the whole King Louie sequence don’t connect much with the main storyline either but they show different environments that are thoroughly entertaining. And for story detours they’re integrated very well and in fact make for the exciting parts of the movie. We need these little adventures and run-ins to keep the film from just being Baloo and Bagheera talking to Mowgli as they walk through the jungle. They may not advance story or characters much but they keep you interested.
          The cast does a good job of that too. Though I don’t think star casting is always the best idea for animated films, I have to admit as pretty much the first Disney film to do so The Jungle Book benefited for it. This may be the best cast for a Disney film yet. Mowgli’s okay, a wide-eyed, curious, resistant-to-change boy who actually has more dimension to him than most Disney children up to this point. He’s voiced by director Wolfgang Reitherman’s son Bruce who does a pretty good job. Another child actor at the time, Clint Howard (you may have heard of his brother Ron) is actually in this too as Junior elephant, who’s parents are voiced by the never disappointing Disney regulars J. Pat O’Malley and Verna Felton (also Ben Wright the voice of Roger, voices Rama the wolf). The scene-stealer though is Phil Harris as Baloo. Harris improvised a lot of his lines (something a couple future comedians would do in Disney movies) and the result is a very unique and memorable character. Like Tramp, he’s got an attitude distinctly of the time. The casting of Harris also turned Baloo into a kind of comic relief and he’s quite often legitimately funny. Baloo may be Disney’s first character who’s both funny but can be taken seriously. Though as Bagheera noted he’s a poor guardian for Mowgli. Bagheera voiced by Sebastian Cabot I always thought was just a character who existed so Mowgli and Baloo had someone to talk to when not with each other. But watching the film again I realize he’s more the straight man to Baloo, the responsible father figure of Mowgli’s. He and Baloo have great chemistry and banter, sometimes feeling like couple in how they both care a great deal for Mowgli but have opposing ideas on how to raise him. Bagheera’s also more mature and rightly understands the threat Shere Khan poses while Baloo gets in over his head when it comes to the fearsome tiger. And Shere Khan is one of the best parts of the movie! With the powerful voice of George Sanders (who you may remember from All About Eve, Rebecca, or Ivanhoe), he is immediately threatening with a daunting screen presence. He’s the best-animated character in the film and his dignified personality and cunning make him one of the very best villains in Disney. Jeremy Irons’ Scar clearly owes a lot to him.
          The songs in The Jungle Book were written by the Sherman Brothers whose work on The Sword in the Stone I felt was very weak. But now they’ve had the chance to strengthen their craft on Mary Poppins turning out some of their best material here. There are some lesser known but still decent songs like “Colonel Haithi’s March” and “My Own Home” but the big hit of course is “The Bare Necessities” which is still catchy as all hell. It’s a Disney classic and deserves to be, being really well written and well performed. Another great one that’ll stick with you is “I Wanna Be Like You” performed by King Louie and the monkeys. And I might as well address King Louie and the issues some have with his character. He’s a parody of Louis Armstrong and some consider him and the other monkeys to be racial caricatures. Coming from someone who watched this movie a number of times as a kid, I never got it. I never picked up on any racial stereotype and I’m sure no kid since has either. Louis Prima does a great job with the voice, again creating a memorable character. And I’ll take possible racist monkeys over Kaa any day. I don’t know if you ever noticed, but Kaa is pretty damn creepy. Yeah he only wants to eat Mowgli, but the elaborate lengths he goes to lure and hypnotize him...well there’s something disturbingly predatorial about it, and not in a typical snake way (though I do love how he tries the trick on Shere Khan, but he’s way too smart; that pair actually had an interesting double act going). The fact that his song “Trust in Me”sounds like testimony you’d hear in the Bill Cosby trials doesn’t help. And it’s shocking to hear Sterling Holloway voicing him, being that he’s also the voice of one of the most innocent characters ever in film, Winnie the Pooh. One song and indeed one group of characters many like myself didn’t catch on to as kids was “That’s What Friends Are For” performed by what quite clearly was supposed to be the Beatles. The song has very much a Beatles vibe to it and the vultures who sing it with their Liverpool accents are obvious send-ups. It makes me wonder why the Beatles turned it down.
          All these songs and characteristics really establish the unique tone of The Jungle Book. This is definitely a film of its time. With the jazzy feel, the personalities of Baloo and the vultures in particular, there is a definite 60’s tone to the whole movie. But it’s not enveloped in it. Because the film does manage to capture some of the spirit of Kipling’s book as well as the jungles of India. The atmosphere, the geography, the people (Indians who actually look like Indians), and the score by George Bruns really makes the film feel a world apart. This collaboration of distinct influences between the book, the environment, and the 60’s surprisingly doesn’t work against the film. It actually makes it more fascinating.
          I do have a few reservations though. Each story detour is never revisited after completion which is fine, but I’d have liked to have seen the wolves a bit more, or at least their influence on Mowgli considering he was raised by them. The animation though generally fine and pretty to look at was lazy in a few places, most notably some of Mowgli’s expressions being ripped straight from Arthur in The Sword in the Stone. And I do think the climax ended with a cop out similar to Lady and the Tramp even though it made the subsequent final scene a little better. The Jungle Book also implies a lot of history in its world and characters, particularly around King Louie’s palace, that’s no doubt explored more in the book; and maybe Baloo’s attachment to Mowgli was a bit too rushed, considering how brief their time together is. Though any criticisms I’m willing to overlook, considering the movie was nice enough to give us a cameo of Bambi’s mum escaping death.
          The Jungle Book was the last film made by Disney with Walt Disney’s own involvement and supervision before his death during production in 1966. Luckily for his legacy, it was really good. It’s certainly not the much darker Kipling book, and while I might have liked that better, it has its own identity and its own charm. It gave us some very enjoyable characters who are timeless (in a literal sense: does anyone remember TaleSpin?), and plenty of enjoyable moments. The songs are classic, the tone wonderfully unique, an ideal swansong for the biggest name in animation and his era of greatness.

Next Week: The Aristocats (1970)

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