• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:January 24, 2021

The Jungle Book: A Bare Necessity


junglebookDisney has a history of taking complex material and turning it into family-friendly fare. The Jungle Book is no exception. Published in 1894, Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories was based on the writer’s experiences growing up in British India as the son of an art teacher and museum curator. Subsequent attempts have been made to interpret some of the stories as allegories of the Indian (or perhaps rather colonial) society at the time.

When Walt Disney decided to turn a few of Kipling’s stories into an animated film, there would be little room left for subtleties.

Raised by wolves in the jungle
Mowgli is an orphan boy, raised by wolves in the Indian jungles. At the age of ten, Bagheera, the black panther who first found him, decides that the time has come to bring this “man cub” back to the “man village”. Mowgli isn’t too keen on the idea and first tries to join an elephant patrol led by Colonel Hathi and then has an argument with Bagheera. Frustrated, the panther leaves Mowgli to his own devices. The boy then runs into Baloo, a fun-loving bear who finds the child amusing and wants to take care of him. Bagheera, who’s observed the encounter, tells Baloo that his intentions are ridiculous and that Mowgli has to return to his own kind. However, a gang of monkeys interferesā€¦ and there are plenty of other dangers in the jungle as well.

Heavily rewritten and simplified
After getting unusually engaged in this production, Walt Disney clashed with the original writer, veteran Bill Peet, who had taken much of Kipling’s darker aspects and put them into the story. Disney wanted lighter fare and Peet eventually departed. The story was heavily rewritten and simplified ā€“ in Disney’s view, this should be a straight, character-driven film.

A darker Jungle Book would have been interesting, but the movie deserves its status as a classic and the best animated Disney film made in the long period between the late 1940s and early 1990s. Created in the simple but clear style of several other Wolfgang Reitherman projects, the first half of the film is dominated by its sense of humor and music, especially in the sequences where Baloo meets Mowgli, and Louie, king of all apes, salutes his own desire to be a human being. Jazz musicians Phil Harris and Louis Prima lend their both intense and laidback personalities to those characters and make them unforgettable, aided by two classic songs that fit them perfectly ā€“ and really get to the core of the characters. The second half of the film relies more on tension, as Mowgli is targeted by the sinister tiger Shere Khan, who is not only voiced with gusto by George Sanders but also borrows the actor’s sophisticated but devious looks.

It’s a short, sweet and fun story that moves very fast, its episodic nature diminished by smooth transitions between the jungle adventures. Even the simplicity may be deceptive; after all, Kaa the python is a character loaded with biblical symbolism, and you can read a lot into Bagheera and Baloo’s shared parenthoodā€¦

The Jungle Book closed a chapter in the glorious history of Walt Disney’s enterprise. The movie was a triumph, but the master had passed away in December 1966 and the company went into a decline that lasted until the late 1980s. Perhaps it is telling that some of the films released after this one simply copied the much celebrated character animation; why reinvent the wheel when you could just hire Phil Harris to basically rip off Baloo? Still, thankfully, The Jungle Book wouldn’t be the end of Disney.

The Jungle Book 1967-U.S. Animated. 78 min. Color. Produced byĀ Walt Disney. Directed byĀ Wolfgang Reitherman. Screenplay: Larry Clemmons, Ralph Wright, Ken Anderson, Vance Gerry. Stories: Rudyard Kipling. Music: George Bruns. Songs: “The Bare Necessities” (Terry Gilkyson), “I Wanna Be Like You” (Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman). Voices of Phil Harris (Baloo), Sebastian Cabot (Bagheera), Louis Prima (King Louie), George Sanders, Sterling Holloway, J. Pat O’Malley.

Trivia:Ā Followed by The Jungle Book 2 (2003) and remade twice as live-action features, The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story (1998) and The Jungle BookĀ (2016).

Last word: “I never had a recording session with any of the other actors. They recorded all our voices before doing theĀ animation. It is then the animator’s job to bring your performance to life with his pencil, responding to things he hears that make your character realistic. So in a way, it’s a joint performance. They also took some live action shoots of me jumping off a rock and throwing a stick. My mannerisms survived into the finished film. But the biggest challenge wasĀ learning to laugh. Actors practise this for years: the more you get it wrong, the harder it becomes to keep having another go. I’m glad there was always someone around to tickle me or leap around pulling funny faces.” (Bruce Reitherman (who was 11 when he voiced Mowgli), The Guardian)



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