Walt Disney and his talented team of animators had become synonymous with feature-length animation come the 1960’s. The studio had faced numerous challenges along the way and at many times was nearly forced from the medium. The studio’s biggest challenge though came towards the end of production for The Jungle Book. Sudden to everyone except his closest family members, was Walt Disney’s passing in December of 1966 at the age of 65 from lung cancer. Disney had never planned for his own demise and the studio would be forced to pick itself up from the ashes, and it would (obviously). As a result, when The Jungle Book was released in the summer of 1967 it was like a curtain call of sorts for Walt Disney. Based on that fact alone, the film likely would have been a commercial success but it certainly helped that it was an entertaining and superbly animated film.
Like many of the Walt Disney animated features, The Jungle Book is an outside story. Based on the works of Rudyard Kipling, it is a loosely adapted feature taking most of the characters and major plot points and adapting them into a mostly unique story to fit the Disney form. The film focuses on the young boy, or man-cub, Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman, who also voiced Christopher Robin in the Disney produced Winnie the Pooh shorts) and the members of his jungle family who are trying to secure his safety. Mowgli was found in the jungle by the panther, Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot), as a baby and brought to a family of wolves who had just recently had a den of pups. The wolves raised Mowgli to boyhood, but when the man-hating tiger Shere Khan (George Sanders) returns to the jungle the pack leader determines Mowgli cannot remain with the wolves for his own safety. Bagheera offers to take Mowgli to the man village where he belongs, but Mowgli is not exactly pleased with the arrangement. When the pair encounter the free-spirited bear, Baloo (Phil Harris), Mowgli feels he’s found a kindred spirit and Baloo agrees to watch over the boy in the jungle. Baloo’s slothfulness essentially gets Mowgli into a bunch of trouble, particularly with the monkeys and their leader King Louie (Louis Prima) and eventually he’s forced to face Khan in the film’s climax.
The story is probably mostly familiar to those reading this as the film has been re-released several times over the last 40+ years. It’s an easy story to relate to as Mowgli is being driven out of the only home he knows. The characters are likable, in particular Baloo who feels like the real star of the picture though viewers are able to identify with Bagheera, who really only wants what’s best for Mowgli, easily even if they side with Baloo. It’s a simple story though with a logical resolution that some actually deem slightly controversial, but only because they fell in love with the pairing of Mowgli and Baloo. I know as a kid it kind of disappointed me, but as an adult I appreciate it more. It’s a bit melancholy, but I kind of like those endings. Otherwise it’s easy for youngsters to follow along with the plot of the film and handled with enough maturity that adult viewers likely won’t mind. At 78 minutes, it’s fairly short but the breezy plot probably didn’t even need that much time.
The Jungle Book is one of the first Disney animated features to really pack-in the musical numbers, which are the major contributor to the film’s running time. If not for the songs, the film could have been wrapped-up in half the time. As such, the film feels almost like a spiritual precursor to the films of the late 80’s and 90’s that took-on a more Broadway-like structure. The Jungle Book is not quite in the same style though, as there is an effort to incorporate the songs into the dialogue and plot as opposed to just having a musical number break-out. The characters also sing and dance in the actual setting of the film, as opposed to having the backgrounds change like a music video to fit the song (contrast that with something like The Lion King’s “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” where the visual style of everything around the characters changes). Composing most of the music are the Sherman brothers, Richard and Robert, who prior to this had done songs for The Sword in the Stone and several live-action Disney films. The lone song not done by the Sherman brothers is actually the most memorable from the film, “The Bare Necessities” which was done by Terry Gilkyson. Gilkyson had originally been tasked with writing the songs for the whole picture, but when they weren’t meeting the standards of Walt Disney, he had to lobby to keep just one song in. He apparently chose well. The most memorable tune by the Shermans is easily King Louie’s “I Wan’na Be Like You” with its up-tempo, swinging vibe. As I’ve stated numerous times in past reviews, I’m not a fan of musicals and I mostly tolerate the musical numbers in Disney films. The two previously mentioned tunes are the only ones I really enjoyed in The Jungle Book. Some of the others felt too interruptive (such as the python Kaa’s number) or just tacked on (the barbershop quartet of buzzards towards the end).
What brings me back to these films time after time if I don’t particularly care for the music? The production, of course, which also includes the film’s score. In contrast to the brighter songs, the score (composed by George Bruns) is more foreboding and slightly sinister at times. It’s mysterious with lots of slow percussion that suits the jungle theme (apparently, had Gilkyson been allowed to contribute all of the songs they would have more closely matched the tone of the film’s score). The cast of voice actors is full of veteran Disney actors that have all either done prior work for the studio or would go on to voice other characters in later films. Phil Harris, who voiced Baloo and would go on to voice Little John in Robin Hood (also, interestingly enough, a bear), was considered a celebrity voice and something Disney strived to avoid. Apparently, he had a personal relationship with Walt which was why Disney chose him for the picture. The most fun voice for me is Kaa, the python, who was voiced by Sterling Holloway, only because Kaa is a villain of sorts while Holloway is probably best known as the original voice for Winnie the Pooh. Imagining Kaa’s lines coming out of the tubby old bear amuses me more than it should.
The true star of the picture is the animation. After getting two films done using the Xerox method (One-Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone) with adequate success, the guys at Disney pretty much had the thing figured out and produced a wonderful looking picture. Where Dalmatians opted for simple, monochrome, backgrounds The Jungle Book utilizes lush, full-figured scenery that beautifully captures the jungle setting. And unlike Dalmatians, the character models are not loaded with extraneous lines or rough edges. There’s still some evidence of the process, but it’s not drastic. The characters are also sharper and more angular when compared with the films of the 40’s and that look would mostly continue into the 80’s. The character designs are simple, but effective, and they still pop against the complex backgrounds. The only character design I did not enjoy that much was Shere Khan’s, who I felt was too scrawny and could have looked more intimidating. Bagheera looked like he could have stood a chance against the tiger, and certainly an entire pack of wolves could have probably over-powered him.
Khan’s character is both a strength and a weakness of the picture. His looks may not have been as intimidating as it could have been, but the work of voice actor George Sanders adds a lethal quality to the character. He comes across as more menacing than some of the more one-note villains from films past. His scenes are uncomfortable for both the viewer and the characters he shares the screen with. He’s cunning, the sort of villain that lulls the character into a false sense of security before slipping a dagger in their belly. Of course, being a tiger Khan has claws and no thumbs, so he can’t really wield a dagger. Those claws represent one the more jarring pieces of the film, as when Khan pops them out during some banter with another character they make this tacky spring sound. If you’ve seen any of the Donald Duck shorts featuring the cougar character you’re probably familiar with the sound and effect. In those shorts the aim is for humor but in The Jungle Book Khan is meant to be frightening and it breaks the mood of the scene. Perhaps that was part of the aim, to inject an element into the picture to lessen the scene’s weight, but it doesn’t work for me.
All in all though, The Jungle Book is an entertaining and enjoyable picture, a worthy film for Walt to go out on. It’s not the best work from Disney, and is probably more successful at entertaining children than adults, but it’s still suitable for all audiences. The picture best succeeds as both a musical and with its animation, which helps make it more of a stand-out film in the Walt Disney lineage than it normally would be. This review is based on the Blu Ray, and the film is practically meant for that format. If you have your own collection of animation at home and it’s missing The Jungle Book, I encourage you to reconsider.