The Jungle Book (1967)
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
Mowgli is an infant human boy found in the wreckage of a boat by the panther Bagheera. He takes the boy to a local wolf pack, who raise him as one of their own until he is ten years old. They then receive news that the tiger Shere Khan, the most feared animal in the jungle, has returned after a long absence. Fearing for the boy’s safety, the wolves entrust Bagheera to deliver Mowgli to the nearest human village.
Not wanting to give up his life in the jungle, Mowgli constantly runs away from Bagheera during their trek. After several misadventures, he meets and befriends Baloo the bear, whose carefree attitude contrasts sharply with Bagheera’s conservative approach. Baloo promises not to take Mowgli to the human village, but the boy is soon abducted by monkeys led by King Louie, who want him to tell them the secret of making fire. Baloo and Bagheera rescue him, and Bagheera convinces Baloo to take him to the village, causing Mowgli to run away again.
While they’re searching for him, they are overheard by Shere Khan, who wants to find him and kill him. He eventually catches up to the boy in a dry brushland as a storm is brewing. Baloo tries to save Mowgli, and is seemingly killed in the process. Lightning strikes one of the dry trees, setting it on fire, and Mowgli uses it to chase off the tiger for good. Baloo reveals himself to not be quite as injured as he’d let on, and they finally bring Mowgli to the village, where he immediately falls in love with the first girl he sees and decides to stay.
After Sword and the Stone was released, Disney writer Bill Peet (who’d written the two previous movies pretty much singlehandedly) suggested The Jungle Book as their next project. The studio had had a lot of success recently with British-themed animated films, and Peet thought that doing Kipling’s Mowgli stories would be a good way to do another movie with interesting animal characters. Disney approved the project, and Peet wrote his script, once again working solo.
When he brought it to Disney for approval, however, his boss hated it. Peet had stuck closely to the dark, serious tone of the original stories, and Disney thought that it was way too mature for a family film. He insisted on changes to the script to lighten the tone – changes which Peet refused to make. Neither would budge, and it eventually led to Peet quitting the company altogether to become a popular children’s book author.
Once again, a Disney film was now behind schedule. A team of four writers made the changes that Disney had wanted to the script, and director Wolfgang Reitherman decided to save on labor by reusing animation from a previous film: the wolf cubs are heavily referenced from the puppies in One Hundred and One Dalmatians. The reusing of animation, made easier thanks to the xerography process, would become a trademark of Reitherman’s films going forward.
This was also the first Disney film to use what later became known as “stunt casting.” Disney had met popular comedian Phil Harris at a party, and suggested that he be cast as Baloo. The president of Disney’s record label then suggested jazz musician Louis Prima for King Louie, and things snowballed from there. While some of Disney’s regulars (Sterling Holloway, Verna Felton) ended up voicing characters, this was the first time that big-name voices had been used in a Disney production since the package film days, when Disney felt that having popular singers of the time was necessary to attract an audience. They even tried to get the Beatles to do the four vultures (the deal fell through, but one of them is still recognizable as Ringo).
The Jungle Book proved to be both a critical and financial success when it was released. It earned three times its budget for Disney, and was in the top ten for the year. Unfortunately, this was to be the last film that Walt Disney himself worked on. He died in 1966, 10 months before the movie was released, of lung cancer at the age of 65.
This was practically a new film for me. I’m sure that I saw it multiple times growing up, and I’ve seen the “live-action” remake from a couple of years ago. But this was certainly my first time seeing the original in at least 20 years, and probably longer. So I’m coming at it with a fairly fresh set of eyes.
Overall, I think I’m pretty positive on the film. The animation is noticeably better than in The Sword and the Stone, particularly when it comes to the backgrounds. There’s none of the extreme sketchiness of the previous two films, and especially 101 Dalmatians. They’re all hand-painted, and give the film’s jungle setting a depth and reality that I was worried wouldn’t be there after my previous experiences with the xerography process. The character animation still has a problem with visible lines, but that’s going to be a consistent thing for the next 15 years or so of Disney animation. Despite my highlighting of the reusing of animation up in the Production section, I only actually noticed it on a couple of shots (mainly the wolf cubs, who are clearly Dalmatians), and it didn’t really bother me at all.
The music in the last couple of movies had been rather lackluster. 101 Dalmatians only had the one full song (though I did like that one), and I didn’t even feel like mentioning the songs from Sword in the Stone during that review. Here, however, there’s at least two here that really knock it out of the park. Louie Prima brings his Vegas swing band to the party for “I Wan’na Be Like You”, complete with a trumpet solo. And “The Bare Necessities” is probably the best Disney song since Cinderella. When I haven’t seen the movie in 20 years and can sing along to the entire song, verses included, you known you have a hit on your hands.
I also found the voice work to be a highlight of the film. All of the animal characters in the film have very distinct personalities, from Hathi’s military bluster to Kaa’s slow, lulling rhythms. It helps that the animators were able to adapt the character designs to fit the actors and comedians who had been cast. This is especially noticeable with Baloo and King Louie, who distinctly look like Phil Harris and Louis Prima.
Speaking of King Louie, I have no problem with the character himself. While quite a few reviewers have objected to Louie and the monkeys as being racist stereotypes, I don’t see it in this case. It helps that Louis Prima is Italian-American, despite at least one review I’ve read assuming otherwise, and actually talked and sung like that in real life. What I do object to is Bagheera’s treatment of them, which I find does have racist overtones. He treats them as undesirables, telling Mowgli to stay away from “their type”.
Other than that, my main complaint against the film is Mowgli himself. The boy is remarkably passive in his own film. He just moves from animal group to animal group, interacting with them a bit before being separated from them by Baloo or Bagheera, and then heads on out again. The only time he takes direct action in the movie is at the very end, when he ties the burning branch to Shere Khan’s tail. Actually, that brings up another point: for all that he’s built up over the course of the film, Shere Khan is only in the movie for a couple of scenes. He’s menacing, in a “I’m a mob boss who could have you killed at any moment but would rather just talk” sort of way, but actually seems more of a threat before he appears than after.
I enjoyed this film more than I thought I was going to. It’s still a bit episodic for my tastes, something it has in common with all of the 60s-era Disney films, but I found a lot to enjoy. The vocal talents were great, the animation a step up from recent entries, and the songs were wonderful. However, this is definitely the end of an era. With the passing of Walt Disney, we’re about to enter into dark times for Disney animation.
Animation: B- (It’s still that sketchy xerography style, but it’s definitely a step up, and the animation recycling was mostly pretty subtle)
Main Character: C- (Mowgli’s got a little more personality than Wart, but only a little. That’s two movies in a row with bad protagonists now)
Supporting Characters: A- (This is where the movie really shines. Bagheera, Baloo, King Louie and the elephants are all very memorable, and Baloo is so beloved that they essentially brought him back whole two movies later)
Villain: B (Shere Khan has a wonderful presence, but he’s actually fairly underused for all that)
Songs: A- (The movie would earn a high rating for “Bare Necessities” alone, but the whole soundtrack is actually pretty great)