#137 The Jungle Book

(1967, Wolfgang Reitherman)

“The bare necessities of life will come to you”

In the wake of Disney buying up Lucasfilm and the release of Wreck-It-Ralph, it’s time to review another Disney movie. I didn’t actually plan that, but it’s nice how these things work out. This time it’s the most popular film from Disney’s mid-period in the sixties, a period where budget constraints made the films a little lower quality than any other time, but this movie endures despite this. It also holds the distinction of being the first Disney movie to have celebrity voice actors and also the last to be personally overseen by Mr Walt Disney himself before his death. It is, of course, The Jungle Book.

Based on stories written by Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book follows the adventures of Mowgli (voiced by Bruce Reitherman), a “man-cub” raised by wolves in the jungles of India. The movie follows the story of his journey to the “man-village” where he belongs following the arrival of fearsome tiger Shere Khan (v/b George Sanders). Khan hates humans, so the wolves as well as the wise panther Bagheera (v/b Sebastian Cabot) decide that Mowgli needs to leave. Along the way Mowgli encounters a cast of varied characters, from the loveable and helpful bear, Baloo (v/b Phil Harris), to the villainous yet inept snake, Kaa (v/b Sterling Holloway), and man-envious orang-utan, King Louie (v/b Louis Prima).

The most notable thing about The Jungle Book is that the animation is nowhere near as detailed and impressive as some of the other well-loved Disney movies. Due to its low budget for a Disney production, animation sequences are obviously reused, some scenes appear very scrappy and unfinished and, quite often, the characters seem to have little interaction with the painted backgrounds around them (Kaa’s slithering is a painfully noticeable example).

It’s kind of disappointing to see such a huge Disney movie looking so messy, since the end result is more like a high-end Hanna-Barbera series of the seventies rather than the quality expecting of Walt Disney and co. That said, the character designs are still good, even if they do go off-model sometimes (Baloo’s head looks abnormally small in the ending scenes, for instance).

So maybe the plot is what makes the movie so endearing and well-loved? Sad to say, this isn’t the case either. The plot is just as messy as the animation, truth be told. There isn’t much of a consistent story here, with the movie feeling more like a series of skits than anything with a clear running storyline. Even the main villain, Shere Khan, fails to put in an appearance until the later scenes of the movie, and the transition to the introduction of Baloo as well as to the scenes with the monkeys and the vultures feels sloppy. It’s possible that this is due to the story being based on a number of stories by Kipling, but it still feels a little awkward.

However, it seems that the charm of the movie exists in the character portrayals. There isn’t a single poor voice performance here. Baloo is brought to life through Phil Harris’ lively and largely ad-libbed performance, and is without question the most likeable character in the movie. George Sanders is delightfully menacing as Shere Khan, coming across as a more restrained cousin of Scar from The Lion King. Sebastian Cabot adds several layers of wisdom and authority to Bagheera, a character who would otherwise feel very bland. Only voice I had an issue with was Kaa, since it’s hard to find a snake menacing when he sounds like Winnie The Pooh with a lisp (it was the same actor, after all).

The songs are also absurdly catchy, with the well-loved classic “The Bare Necessities” (quoted at the top) being stuck in my head for days after watching the movie and refusing to shift. I could be critical about the songs and point out how they were clearly trying to tap into a certain kind of sixties “cool” for the sake of it (they certainly don’t fit the vibe of the Indian jungle), but damn it, they’re so catchy it becomes impossible to care. Good show, Disney.

Overall, The Jungle Book is very rough around the edges, but it’s still charming. Even the movie’s shortcomings end up becoming part of the charm. Certainly a fine end to Walt’s era.

Starring the voices of Bruce Reitherman, Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima, George Sanders & Sterling Holloway
Written by Rudyard Kipling (original stories), Larry Clemmons, Ralph Wright, Ken Anderson & Vance Gerry
Produced by Walt Disney
Music by George Bruns, songs by the Sherman Brothers & Terry Gilkyson

Favourite Scene: The introduction to Baloo is pretty fun. But then it is the introduction to the best character in the film, so what do you expect?
Scene That Bugged Me: Never really liked the scene with the vultures, especially with the rather drab acapella song.

Watch it if: You’re the king of the swingers
Avoid it if: You’re tired of monkeying around

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Posted on November 16, 2012, in 1960s, Animation, Comedy, Family, Musical and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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