Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Disney Discussion - The Jungle Book

Over the course of the year, we'll be spending our Wednesdays with Walt, having a discussion about each of Disney's animated films...

Movie #19 of The Disney Discussion
The Jungle Book (1967)
Featuring the voice talents of Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima, George Sanders, Sterling Holloway, J. Pat O'Malley, Verna Felton, and Bruce Reitherman
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
Summary (in 150 words or less):
A young boy named Mowgli is raised in the jungles of India by a pack of wolves.  However, as Mowgli grows older, the wolves worry for his safety with the reappearance of the tiger Shere Khan who hates man.  In order to protect Mowgli, the wolves enlist panther Bagheera to take the human boy back to the man village where he can live in less fear.  Along the way to the village, the reluctant Mowgli meets a series of animals that remind him how much he loves jungle life.

Facts and Figures
The Jungle Book is the Walt Disney Company's nineteenth full-length animated feature films and was released on October 18, 1967.

The film was the fourth highest grossing picture of the year and worldwide has grossed over $205 million to date.  Adjusted for inflation, The Jungle Book is the 29th highest-grossing film in the US.

The song "The Bare Necessities" was nominated for Best Song at the 1968 Academy Awards, but it did not win.

This was the last film to which Walt Disney lent his personal touch as Mr. Disney passed away ten months prior to its release.  Interestingly enough, the film had a bit of a rough road to the screen as the Disney crew's first crack at it with director Bill Peet at the helm felt a little too intense and serious for Walt's tastes.  Director Wolfgang Reitherman came onboard and Walt told much of the film's crew to not read the book as he didn't want the novel's serious tone to impede on the more comic creativity he wanted to display.

Let the Discussion Begin...
The Jungle Book is perhaps the most episodic animated film we've seen to date in this discussion (although Alice in Wonderland still may take the cake there).  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does cause the film to lack a bit of forward momentum.  As Mowgli moves from character to character on his journey to the man village, excitement fails to be generated despite the fact that each character he meets brings a unique personality and perspective to the proceedings.

Beyond the lush, colorful landscape created by the animators which is absolutely beautiful and some of their best work yet, it's the characters in The Jungle Book that really make the film come alive.  While Mowgli himself is a bit of an emotional blank, the clever friends (and enemies) he meets along the way -- all accompanied by a song that suits their demeanors -- are fun additions.
For the first time, Disney's team chose some well-known names to voice their characters whom the animators claim helped shape their animated images.  Perhaps most familiar and most entertainingly infectious is comedian Phil Harris' voicing of Baloo, an affable, lovable, carefree bear whose easygoing nature doesn't sit too well with the uptight panther Bagheera who is tasked with delivering Mowgli to the man village.  (Bagheera is voiced by Sebastian Cabot, perhaps best known for his role on Family Affair.)  Aided by the delightful song "The Bare Necessities" (by Terry Gilkyson), Baloo jumps right off the screen and into our hearts as he befriends Mowgli with his lackadaisical style of living.
Also quite fun in band leader Louis Prima's take on the jazz riffing orangutan King Louie.  When Louie's fellow simians steal Mowgli from Baloo and take the boy back to their lair, they press the human for the secret behind "man's red flower" -- AKA "fire" -- in the swinging tune "I Wan'na Be Like You."  Unable to help him, Louie and his crew start to get a little manic with Mowgli in one of the film's most creative and exciting set pieces.
We also meet a Beatles-esque quartet of vultures and a military pack of elephants along the way, but of the remaining characters, the stand-outs are villains Kaa the snake and Shere Khan the tiger.  Voiced by Disney regular Sterling Holloway, Kaa's soothing demeanor oftentimes lulls Mowgli into a false sense of security as the constrictor attempts to have Mowgli for breakfast.  However, Kaa is played for humor, whereas Shere Khan is strictly all evil business.  Not even making an appearance until about two-thirds of the way through the film, we'd heretofore only heard about his voracious hatred of man only through the fearful words of others.  However, his menacing walk and mellifluous talk by George Sanders brings just the right tone to the villain.

Musically, The Jungle Book is the best thing we've seen in a while from the Disney company.  Walt Disney brought back the Sherman Brothers after their first attempt at animation in The Sword in the Stone and their work here is charmingly successful.  All of their songs -- from the swinging "I Wan'na Be Like You" to the lullaby-esque "My Own Home" to the barbershop vulture quartet's "That's What Friends Are For" to the hypnotic "Trust in Me" -- fit perfectly with the characters singing them.  Oddly enough, as I mentioned above, the film's most memorable number -- "The Bare Necessities" -- was not written by the Shermans, but instead by Terry Gilkyson who had written a large number of songs for the film prior to it being overhauled which left the majority of his work on the cutting room floor.
The film utilizes a beautiful, lush color palette to tell its tale and the animation is successful.  Unfortunately, the story can't match everything else that's brought to the screen.  Perhaps Walt's hand at trying to make things lighter and more airy caused the story to lose any sense of purpose.  Comedic bits outside of the songs fall flat -- and are even repeated despite being unsuccessful the first time around -- and I found myself itching for a serious moment or two to connect me to Mowgli's plight.  Yes, that's maybe a bit harsh, but it really does lack a momentum to push us through its 75 minutes.  

Random Thoughts
  • The film's opening credits feature some strong orchestral scoring by George Bruns.  While the score during the actual movie itself doesn't quite match its overture, this is one of the more unique scores we've heard so far.
  • Also, in regards to the opening credits -- back to that good ole standby of a book opening to start the film!  This despite the fact that I've heard Disney's version bastardizes Rudyard Kipling's tome.
  • "My Own Home" would/could never be written today with the lines "'Til the day that I am grown / I will have a handsome husband / And a daughter of my own / And I'll send her to fetch the water / I'll be cooking in the home."

Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
While I'd love to say that Walt's last personalized animated film allowed him to go out with a bang, I can't and there's part of me that thinks he's at fault for requesting the lighter mood for the flick.  Granted, I have no idea how the first attempt at a script panned out and perhaps it truly was awful, but the episodic nature of the film as presented here isn't successful.  Now, the film certainly isn't bad.  It contains some of the best songs we've seen yet in a Disney film sung by strong characters (in turn voiced by great performers) and some beautiful animation, all of which certainly works in The Jungle Book's favor, but the lack of a solid story brings this film to a screeching halt.  This one ends up being a borderline Pantheon film -- arguments for inclusion and exclusion could be made and I wouldn't be disappointed with either decision.

The RyMickey Rating: C+

Join us next Wednesday for The Aristocats, the twentieth film in The Disney Discussion.
***The Aristocats is currently streaming on Netflix, so watch it and join in on the discussion!***

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