The Great Disney Blogathon: The Jungle Book (1967)
|January 19, 2015||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
The Jungle Book is the end of an era. It was the last film produced during Walt’s lifetime, released ten months after his death. That fact overshadowed the movie itself at the time it was released, and it still overshadows it for me, watching it 48 years later. The Jungle Book is basically a freewheeling romp through the jungle, a goofy adventure that glosses over any hint of serious emotion, and yet for me it’s always borne a tinge of sadness; I can’t decide if that comes from the movie itself and its melancholy end, or just from what I know about what was happening behind the scenes.
My feelings about Walt Disney, like my feelings about the Disney corporation as a whole, are complicated. He has infamously been accused of both anti-semitism and racism since the 30s, accusations which are still hotly debated. Though we’ll probably never know the truth, I’m sure he said and did many things in his time that we in 2015 would consider to be bigoted and hateful. It’s undeniable that he produced racist, sexist, and anti-semitic products, and I don’t consider changing social mores to be an excuse for dehumanizing people. He’s been accused of stealing work and ideas, of being a capricious tyrant in the studio, of strikebreaking and exploiting his staff. For every (apocryphal) story of him spotting dirty jokes the animators slipped into a single frame of animation with his magic Walt Disney eyes, there’s an (apocryphal) story of him showering one of his staffers with verbal abuse. I’m sure at least some of the terrible things people have said about him were true.
He was also undeniably a visionary. He had a peerless sense of story, of character, of design; he had the born showman’s ability to give the people what they wanted even when they didn’t know they wanted it. Too often the brilliant work of his employees is credited solely to him, and I don’t want to take away from the contributions of the hundreds of people who worked on the shorts and movies and TV shows and Disneyland in his lifetime – but without Walt, none of those things would exist. He pioneered the synchronization of animation and sound, the full-length animated movie, the theme park. He gave Mickey Mouse his first voice. He may have been a benevolent genius or a self-involved jerk, I don’t know – but he ushered so much beauty and joy into this world, directly or indirectly, that I can’t help but feel a certain measure of gratitude towards him. Certainly his legacy has given me countless hours of happiness, not to mention an excuse to write thousands upon thousands of words about his movies.
The Jungle Book is not, perhaps, the shining triumph someone as aware of posterity as Walt would want to go out on – but it’s not half-bad, and it’s pure Disney through and through. At first glance it’s The Sword in the Stone in a different setting – an amiable, mop-headed youngster is shepherded through episodic adventures by older, more colorful male mentors until he finds his rightful place in the world – but where Sword is sparse, with very few memorable characters and no noteworthy songs, The Jungle Book is crammed with strong personalities, lush backgrounds, and at least two showstoppers.
To begin with, Mowgli is a much more engaging centerpiece than Wart. Disney has a habit of building movies around generic Everykids (aside from Wart, just off the top of my head there’s Alice, Taran, Penny, Jenny, and Cody, some of whom have more personality than others) and surrounding them with more interesting characters, usually heroic animals – but though Mowgli is inarguably surrounded by more interesting characters, he’s got plenty of personality in his own right. He’s a people person, so to speak, eager to be friends with every strange creature he encounters. One of his most charming characteristics is his habit of taking on the body language of every animal that temporarily adopts him; he imitates Baloo the most, of course, but he also marches like an elephant, romps like a wolf cub, flutters his arms like a vulture, and tries to climb a tree like a panther, with little success. His gangly, potbellied little body easily takes on these other postures, making him come across both like a very real little boy and truly a feral child. (We’d get the grownup and much more fully-realized version of this decades later with the titular Tarzan.)
He’s also hot-tempered, stubborn, and supremely confident. When you think about it, it makes sense that he’d be utterly fearless, raised by wolves and mentored by a panther, but there were definitely moments rewatching this movie (which I’ve only seen two or three times in the past) where I winced at the uninhibited way he leaps onto Baloo and Bagheera despite their many pointy bits. Considering how naive he is, it’s frankly remarkable that he lived to be ten years old – but his clueless bravery is as endearing as it is worrying, especially when he boldly faces down Kaa, or wallops Shere Khan over the head to defend his beloved Baloo. He’s just a great little kid (and charmingly voiced by Bruce Reitherman, son of director Wolfgang).
And speaking of voices…Disney had used celebrity voices before, but The Jungle Book was the first time they’d let the voice actor just cut loose in the studio and shaped the character around them. This is most notable with Phil Harris, who improvised most of Baloo’s dialogue, but King Louie and Shere Khan are also very much based on their voices (Louis Prima and George Sanders respectively – more on them later). This method of character design – bring in a big personality and then draw them as a funny animal – became very much a trend in the ensuing years and remains so today, although Disney’s never been the worst offender in this category. (Looking at you, Dreamworks.) Phil Harris is particularly notable – some would say problematic – because he’d go on to star in the next two animated offerings from Disney, even playing a bear in Robin Hood.1
The argument against starting with a celebrity voice is that it’s lazy; rather than taking the time to develop a character, the animators just let Mike Myers or Ellen or whoever do their thing, draw whiskers on them, and call it a day. I’d argue that it doesn’t matter where the character comes from, if the character works onscreen. Robin Williams is exactly himself as the Genie and that’s what makes Aladdin magic. Eddie Murphy is perfect as Mushu. David Spade is perfect as Kuzco. If the performance and the animation and the story are good enough, the voice actor’s recognizable persona can elevate the finished product rather than taking away from it.
Phil Harris as Baloo undeniably works.2 He’s the beating heart of this movie, which is remarkable considering that it takes him half an hour to show up and his relationship with Mowgli is ridiculously rushed. Still, I squeaked out loud when Baloo defiantly called Mowgli “my cub” within ten minutes of meeting him, and actually cried when Mowgli left him for the human village – again, after only knowing Baloo for, what, 48 hours? It’s a testament to how strong these characters are, how deftly their personalities and instant connection are depicted, that theirs is a relationship to tug at the heartstrings when the plot really does absolutely nothing to support that.3
If Baloo is the fun, freewheeling heart of the movie, Bagheera, voiced deliciously by Sebastian Cabot, is the steady conscience. I was surprised by how much I adored Bagheera during this rewatch; he’s just so good, so loyal and responsible and selflessly wanting the best for Mowgli, and he’s clearly such a mush trying hard to act like he doesn’t care. He clearly has history not just with Mowgli but with everyone in the jungle (his calling Baloo “that shiftless, stupid, jungle bum” made me laugh out loud), and I’m kind of fascinated by what he does when he’s not shepherding a mancub back to civilization. Everyone pretty much seems to do what he says – does he just wander around the jungle being sarcastic yet reliable? I love it. His relationship with Mowgli is also one to break the heart, in a more understated fashion, and his dynamic with Baloo is hilarious and great, a fine precursor to Timon and Pumbaa as a possibly-married interspecies jungle odd couple raising a child of yet another species who needs to accept his destiny. That’s a weirdly specific thing to have multiple iterations of, and yet there you have it.
The supporting characters also shine in their brief moments in the spotlight – again, mostly thanks to their voices. Kaa in particular is wonderful; Sterling Holloway does a deliciously creepy take on his familiar gentle tones, and the animation on him, completely freed from any kind of live action model, zoological accuracy, or even gravity, is truly spectacular. King Louie is an absolute blast, mostly on the strength of his song (more on that later). Shere Khan is honestly not that much of a menace, coming in as late as he does, but that voice. I find the elephant shenanigans a bit tiresome – their scenes go on way too long – but the unnamed Baby Elephant is adorable, and impressively not just a recycling of Dumbo.
I should also note Verna Felton as the voice of Winifred the elephant, one of only two female speaking roles in the whole movie (SIGH – more on that later too). Felton had a long and proud history with Disney, also playing two elephants in Dumbo, the Fairy Godmother, the Queen of Hearts, Aunt Sarah from Lady and the Tramp, and Flora, and like Walt, this was her last film before she died. Naturally that fact is forgotten under the weight of Walt’s death, so I wanted to make sure she got her due.
As a final character note, there are the vultures, who are an utterly random mishmash of accents, cultural references, and apocryphal stories about the Beatles. The story seems to be that they were actually going to be voiced by the Beatles but the timing didn’t work out, or John Lennon wasn’t into the idea, or something; hence we get a moptopped foursome that sings like a barbershop quartet and only has one Liverpudlian accent among them, forming a vague and confusing callback to something that didn’t happen and maybe never almost did. I guess barbershop quartets weren’t that much more dated in 1967 than the Dixieland jazz and bebop of the movie’s hits (in fact, it’s one of the Mellomen who finishes the song out with that magnificent bassline, subbing in for George Sanders).
In general, The Jungle Book is a movie that sacrifices plot for character, but it just barely gets away with it. The story is episodic, the stakes never rise, and even the final boss battle is played more for humor than drama. Now I’m a plot person first and foremost – just wait until I go into raptures over Aladdin’s perfect structure – but The Jungle Book is saved by brilliant characters and fabulous songs (I promise we’ll get to them!). This was Walt’s intention. In fact, he was more involved with The Jungle Book than he had been with the feature films in a while. He tossed out Bill Peet’s original script and (most of) Terry Gilkyson’s original score, which hewed closely to the book and which he felt were too dark; when he put Larry Clemmons on the job of rewriting the script, he handed him the book and said: “Here is the original by Rudyard Kipling. The first thing I want you to do is not to read it.” The episodic, plotless romp that resulted is very much a hallmark of Disney in the 60s and 70s, for better or for worse.
Maybe it was Walt’s involvement, but the animation has taken a major step up since The Sword in the Stone. The backgrounds are stunning; they’re not quite on the level of, say, Bambi, or the still-to-come splendors of The Lion King, but the jungle looks lush and green and full, and there are some very nice effects involving waterfalls, flowers floating on the river, shafts of sunlight piercing the canopy in a misty dawn, and so on. The figure animation is better too; at times both Bagheera and Mowgli get a little iffy, but not to the genuinely lazy extent we saw with Sword. Bagheera and Shere Khan are particularly impressive, as they really do move like big cats, and beautifully so. Even Shere Khan’s stripes – a tricky animation challenge that probably couldn’t have been done before the studio started using Xerography with One Hundred and One Dalmatians – are mostly kept in line. However, the studio’s bad habit of recycling animation is present here, occasionally in repeated scenes with the monkeys and Kaa, but most notably for me with the wolf cubs, who are clearly just traced off of the living room scene from Dalmatians.
OKAY. Let’s talk about the music. Now, there are six songs in The Jungle Book, but only two that anybody cares about – and they are both spectacular. I literally rewound “The Bare Necessities” – which was nominated for an Oscar – and watched it a second time, it’s so great. Both “The Bare Necessities” (the only song to remain from Gilkyson’s original score) and the bafflingly punctuated “I Wan’na Be Like You” (by Disney stalwarts the Sherman Brothers) are utterly infectious and will be stuck in your head forever. They’ve both been covered a million times and have rightfully gone down in history as some of Disney’s best songs ever. If this movie had nothing to recommend it except these songs, it would still be pretty great. Much more than Merlin’s awkward Bermuda shorts at the end of Stone, these songs bring a jubilant modern beat to an old story, even if it is jazz and not rock and roll.4
I’ve praised this movie more than I expected to, but let’s not overlook the elephant in the room: Rudyard Kipling’s work is some racist bullshit, and adapting it without challenging that is also some racist bullshit. Disney’s take avoids really any racializing of Mowgli’s state as a feral child, or moralizing about man vs. the jungle or whatever, but that doesn’t change the fact that Kipling has left profoundly racist footsteps to follow in. The appropriation of jazz and scat with a largely (all?) white cast doesn’t help.
There are also only two female characters in the entire movie, if you don’t count Mowgli’s nonspeaking wolf mother, who exists to do nothing but “have a maternal instinct.” (Gross, Bagheera. You’re gross.) I’ve already mentioned Winifred, who similarly has no role outside of urging Colonel Hathi to think about Mowgli in the context of their own little son. The other is the unnamed little girl (named Shanti for the sequel) who causes Mowgli to give up jungle life for the human village. Poor Shanti is ground zero for a spectacular collision of sexist, racist garbage. Even though we can safely assume she’s only ten, like Mowgli, she’s portrayed as deeply sexual, with huge, coquettish eyes and a vaguely sexy outfit; John Grant, in his Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters, grossly describes her as “full of eastern promise.” You are nasty, John Grant. She is a child. Meanwhile, her song, “My Own Home,” is all about traditional domesticity; while “Father is hunting,” “Mother is cooking in the home,” and someday Shanti too will get married and chain herself to the kitchen. UGH. I haven’t seen The Jungle Book 2 yet, but I hope to God Shanti gets to do something more than play the “exotic” temptress and dream of feeding her man.5
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to talk about this movie’s two TV spinoffs, both of which are exceptionally bizarre. The one that feels weirder to me is Jungle Cubs, which is actually probably way more normal, but I didn’t grow up on it so it weirds me out. Running from 1996-1998, it’s about Baloo, Bagheera, Louie, Shere Khan, Kaa, and Hathi as kids, with Winifred taking on a slightly larger role than she has in the movie in a half-assed attempt to get a female character in there. Apparently all of these animals were bestest friends, which makes no sense even if you pretend that they all have the same lifespans and that a bunch of apex predators would just hang out with their prey and each other. I watched a few minutes of an episode on YouTube where Baloo was pranking Shere Khan and thought, “You two are going to fight to the death someday.” Here’s the extremely cheesy theme song.
The other spinoff is one of the weirdest things the Disney Afternoon had to offer, and that was a pretty weird block of programming to begin with: TaleSpin, which ran from 1990-1991. It took some of The Jungle Book’s characters (Baloo, Louie, and Shere Khan, but weirdly not Bagheera), anthropomorphized them a bit more, plopped them in a 1930s-ish, Hawaii-ish setting, and made Baloo an easygoing pilot with a shipping company. Instead of Mowgli, he’s foster father to an orphaned ex-air-pirate bear cub named Kit Cloudkicker (only one of the best character names of all time). When not fighting air priates, Baloo spends much of his time butting heads with his boss, Rebecca Cunningham, yet another anthropomorphic bear who bought out his business when he nearly lost it. So basically it’s the mostly-forgotten adventure show Tales of the Gold Monkey starring the characters from The Jungle Book with a romantic relationship based on the then-current Sam/Rebecca dynamic on Cheers. Why??? Because this theme song, that’s why:
The Jungle Book has a lot of stuff going on: weak plot, great characters and music, racist history, somber backstory, weird spinoffs. It’s far from perfect, but it’s also the 29th highest grossing film of all time in US (adjusted for inflation), ranking well above better-loved Disney movies. Luminaries of the field like Brad Bird, Andreas Deja, and Glen Keane have all said that this movie is the reason they got into animation. It’s a complicated legacy, but it’s a fitting one for a complicated man. Sorry, Baloo. Not everything can be simple.
- I was so confused as a child because Baloo and Little John were clearly the same character, and hey, Baloo was kicking around in 1930s Hawaii in TaleSpin, so maybe he was just an immortal talking bear who wore shirts sometimes? That’s not any weirder than TaleSpin already is. ↩
- It helps that modern viewers pretty much only know Harris from these movies, since he made his name in radio. When I looked up a picture of him I was mildly surprised to find he wasn’t actually a cartoon bear. ↩
- Also, I looked it up because I’ve always wondered what a random bear is doing in the jungle, and apparently Baloo is a sloth bear, which can indeed be found on the Indian subcontinent. And look how cute they are! Also, please enjoy this image of the real life Baloo/Shere Khan showdown. ↩
- As I’ve said before, Disney wouldn’t discover rock and roll until freaking 1988. Bless your conservative, dad music-y hearts, Disney. ↩
- She’s voiced by the wonderful Mae Whitman, so I have faith. ↩