The Jungle Book (1967)
Starring the voices of Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima, George Sanders and Sterling Holloway
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
Baloo and Mowgli take a lazy float downstream.
Disney gives The Jungle Book the Platinum Edition treatment in this 40th anniversary 2-disc DVD release in stores this week. As they have with previous Platinum projects, Disney has done a phenomenal job in restoring the breezy tale of Mowgli the man cub and his episodic adventures in the Indian jungle. The colors are vivid, the jungle backgrounds lush (check out the giant waterfall used in several scenes) and the character animation lively and memorable, making The Jungle Book an absolute treat for the eyes.
The story is, well, another story.
The Jungle Book has always suffered from being less than the sum of its parts. All the elements of a Disney classic are there: colorful characters (Harris's big bear Baloo and Holloway's sibilant snake Kaa), first-rate songs ("The Bare Necessities" and the underrated "I Wanna Be Like You") and great individual scenes (Mowgli being raised by wolves and later finding his destiny in the Man Village). What it lacks is a strong narrative to hold it all together. The sinister tiger Shere Khan (Sanders) is stalking Mowgli (or so we hear--the movie spends more time talking about it than showing it), prompting the man cub's panther friend Bagheera (Cabot) and Baloo to try to coerce Mowgli to return to the safety of the Man Village. Mowgli, of course, doesn't want to go--life in the jungle suits him just fine--but there's never any sense of urgency to move him along. Mowgli just meanders through the jungle, peeved at any animals that get in his way, including the ones that could kill him. Yes, it's a Disney movie, but the darker themes of Rudyard Kipling's original stories are so watered down and benign that any sense of fear or dramatic tension is sucked dry.
Why does it always have to be ssssssnakes?
The ongoing debate over whether Walt's loose adaptation of The Jungle Book was the right way to go gets considerable attention in two remarkable bonus features on the second disc. "The Bare Necessities: The Making of The Jungle Book" is a detailed analysis of the movie that pays deserved tribute to the artists who created it. The other, "Disney's Kipling: Walt's Magic Touch on a Literary Classic" focuses entirely on The Jungle Book's story development. Both features acknowledge the contributions of veteran Disney story man Bill Peet, whose original treatment of the story was far more mysterious and brooding than Walt ever wanted. Peet and Disney's disagreements over how to adapt Kipling's stories were legendary and Peet left the studio in 1964 shortly after Walt pulled him from the production. By the time you finish seeing these two features, you can't help but wonder if Peet, had he been allowed, could've written a deeper, more complex tale and whether Walt (for all the credit he's given) actually did more harm than good by "Disneyfying" the story.
Discussion of The Jungle Book's visual artistry in the "making of" feature is fascinating. What a joy it is to hear comments from modern Disney and Pixar animators and directors like Brad Bird (The Incredibles), Glen Keane (Beauty and the Beast) and Andreas Deja (Lilo & Stitch) mixed with archived interviews with Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (who together animated about half of The Jungle Book), Woolie Reitherman and Milt Kahl. There's the usual self-congratulatory Disney puffery in the feature, but there's also great insight into the art of animation and the state of the Disney Studio at the time of Walt's death 10 months before the release of The Jungle Book. It's truly touching to hear the recollections of studio staff during Walt's final days.
Fans and critics will always have a warm spot in their hearts for the last animated feature Walt put his hands on. Though the storyline may be flawed, however, there's still much in The Jungle Book to entertain and delight. In this DVD package, the beauty of the artist's brush is every bit as delightful as the documentarian's camera.