Dir:- Wolfgang Reitherman
Starr:- Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, George Sanders, Sterling Holloway, Louis Prima, Bruce Reitherman, Clint Howard
Note:- Overtly personal reminisces feature heavily throughout this review, as I believe it is impossible to approach Disney films you have loved as a child in any other critical fashion.
Disney really do hold a person hostage when it comes to critical response. The very first cinematic experience I had, was watching a summer reissue of Bambi, aged 4 (back when you used to get at least one Donald Duck/Mickey Mouse short before the feature). I actually credit that movie with promoting my love of film, and more importantly story, as it was my first encounter with a strength of emotion that I had been hitherto unaware existed. My second experience of the cinema was to see the reissue of this ‘Summer of Love’ classic. Just as Bambi had captivated me with its take on family and friendship, not to mention its harrowing depiction of the violence of nature, The Jungle Book left me feeling like one of Kaa’s entranced victims, endlessly singing ‘The Bare Necessities’ and ‘I Wanna be Like You’ and trying not to think too much of George Sanders’ claw-wielding Shere Khan. In short, I loved the film. With its exotic jungle locales, zany Tom and Jerry antics and vast array of colourful characters, it would be odd for the movie not to have cast a spell on my impressionable imagination.
Watching The Jungle Book from the vantage of adulthood, with so many other Disney movies having sailed under my bridge of consciousness, I still find it a bright and breezy kids adventure, that has the arch-menace of George Sanders vocal work to counterpoint the pally bonhomie of Sebastian Cabot and Phil Harris’s double-act as Bagheera and Baloo respectively. Despite the dated, at times near-static, quality of the animation on display, The Jungle Book, does seem to have an easygoing, rambling, free-spirited energy about it, that oddly, must have been very much in keeping with the times. It’s the closest that Disny ever really come to up-to-date musical relevance, with Louis Prima’s supreme scatting only being about eight years off the pace. Yet this kind of musical pedantry on my part misses the point, namely that as a kid these songs are infectious and are consigned straight to memory. Compared with later efforts such as The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, both of which feature theatrical and sophisticated levels of musical orchestration, The Jungle Book’s tunes still win out, just through the sheer quality of their sing-along lyrics and the rhythmic simplicity of their almost skeletal melodies.
Like many a great Disney adaptation The Jungle Book is very loosely based on a literary source, namely Rudyard Kipling’s series of Mowgli stories. It is set in Raj-era India and tells the tale of a ‘man-cub’ Mowgli who, as a baby, is left in the woods. Here he is discovered by the noble panther Bagheera (one of my all-time favourite Disney characters, excellently voiced by Sebastian Cabot) who opts to find a family for Mowgli in a nearby wolf-pack. Mowgli grows up as part of a wolf family, but then the ferocious tiger Shere Khan arrives back in this area of the jungle, with the specific need to neutralise the ‘man-cub’ before he grows up to become a fearsome man. With Mowgli’s wolf family unable to convince the pack to defend one of their own, Bagheera has to try to safely navigate a way through the jungle and back to the man-village, so that Mowgli can escape the clutches of Shere Khan. The main focus of the narrative is a merging of the key plot points in two separate Mowgli stories from Kipling’s book, ‘Mowgli’s Brothers’ and ‘Kaa’s Hunting’. In the former we have the confrontation between Mowgli and Shere Khan, as well as the colourful education at the hands of Bagheera and Baloo. Whilst the latter story is about Mowgli’s abduction by the monkeys and his rescue by Baloo, Bagheera, Chil and that slippery serpent Kaa. Disney omit Chil from the proceedings (a missed opportunity with a name like that) entirely, whilst they make Kaa a more obviously villainous, or duplicitous, character than he appears to be in the stories (in many ways Kaa is the hero of the monkey section), completely removing his role in the locating of the monkey hideout. This simplified approach to story does help to foreground some excellent characterisation, with the Elephants appearing to be a regiment of the British Army, a group of vultures coming to represent different facets of 60’s pop iconography and Kaa’s syllabic prolongation of the letter S (courtesy of the inimicable Sterling Holloway) seeming suitably insidious, his powers of hypnotism being akin to a acid-induced trance state.
Very much of its time The Jungle Book offers up some interesting subtextual elements. Behind Bagheera’s desire to see Mowgli safely back to the man-village, there is a sense of failure in his own idealistic ambitions. As Bagheera explains to Baloo, Mowgli needs to be with his own kind, as otherwise it’s too dangerous for him in the jungle. Considering the civil rights issues and racial politics that were so defining of that period of American history, this seems like a tacit acknowledgement of concerns about racial integration. In Baloo we have a free and easy character who seems the very epitome of laid back, ‘far-out’, Summer of Love hippiness, and whom at one point pretty much codifies the tune-in, drop-out ethos of the times, with his monologue on the unnecessary hassles that people engage in for the sake of lifestyle. These contemporaneous concerns are then placed alongside the adoption of Kipling’s Raj-model of the code of the jungle, which is giving a vaguely ironic, potentially postcolonial, twist in the dilapidated look of the Elephant Army, with Britain’s officer class living in a repetitious and pointless little dream world.
Perhaps the most distressing thing about watching The Jungle Book as an adult, aware of how the movie-making process occurs, is in discovering just how obviously Disney were struggling to live up to their own illustrious technical standards. The Jungle Book was the first of Disney’s films to be produced in the lean period of budget cutbacks and restructuring that lasted for over two decades. Director Reitherman was part of a generation of artists and writers who had grown up within the Disney family and who would oversee the decline in Disney’s fortunes as a direct result of the lack of new young blood coming through the ranks to replace them. Early indicators of the troubles to come can be found in The Jungle Book’s repeated recycling of various different sequences (Kaa’s falling from the tree routine, Bagheera’s hitting off of something, the marching elephants). As a child this probably went unnoticed, the familiarity of image, if anything, possibly being preferable. However, in light of what was going to come, this is an unfortunate scar on what should have been a flawless Disney classic. Reitherman was seen by many as heralding in the era in which Disney appeared to have a crisis of confidence, lacking the grand ambitions and cutting-edge animation of ‘the golden era’ of the 30’s and 40’s. Certainly there is something far more low-key about works like Robin Hood and The Rescuers, but The Jungle Book should still be considered as belonging amongst the Disney classics. Speaking for my 5 year-old self, I can distinctly remember the spellbinding effect the movie had on me when I saw it up there on the big-screen, whilst the fire climax seemed truly terrifying. Would a diet of technically groundbreaking Pixar fare inure today’s children to the pleasures of life’s bare necessities? I really can’t answer that with any objectivity, as I’m still trying to get my tongue around a paw-paw and a prickly pear.