Judge Clark Douglas is gone, man, solid gone.
The jungle is jumpin'!
"Man, that's what I call a swinging party!"
Facts of the Case
Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman) is a young boy who grew up under unusual circumstances. Abandoned by his family and left in the middle of the jungle, Mowgli was rescued by a panther named Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot, Family Affair) and raised by a pack of wolves. However, he will soon be making the transition from boyhood to manhood, and the time has come for him to return to his own people. Bagheera is tasked with ensuring that Mowgli is brought to the Man Village, but the boy is having none of it. He runs off, and soon finds himself involved in a variety of misadventures with the fun-loving Baloo the Bear (Phil Harris, The Aristocats), some militant elephants, the slippery ape King Louie (Louis Prima), the sinister Kaa the Snake (Sterling Holloway, Alice in Wonderland), a handful of bored vultures and the savage Shere Khan the Tiger (George Sanders, All About Eve).
People often complain about movies based on books taking huge liberties with the source material, but somehow Disney manages to get away with almost entirely discarding the stories upon which their films are supposedly based. The Disney version of The Jungle Book has almost nothing to do with Rudyard Kipling's novel, but many viewers have forgiven that crime simply because Disney managed to provide such an infectious, appealing substitute. The movie not only deviates from Kipling's tale, but also deviates from Disney's established formula of the era. While most the previous Disney films had aimed for a kind of timeless classicalism, The Jungle Book opted for a hipper, more modern tone, complete with swinging music, anachronistic lingo and playful pop culture references. It's also the last animated film overseen by Walt Disney himself, and arguably the end of an era. Starting with their next film—the pleasant-but-slight The Aristocats—Disney animation would enter a creative slump that would last more than two decades.
Having watched The Jungle Book countless times as a kid, I was pleased to discover it holds up splendidly after all these years, but there are certain elements one begins to view differently as an adult. I always thought of Mowgli as the main character. After all, the whole film revolves around him, and he's certainly the main character of just about every other version of this tale. However, watching it this time I was struck by the realization that Mowgli is little more than a blank slate and a handy plot device. There's not much to the character save for the fact that he wants to stay in the jungle, and this unyielding feeling seems motivated more by the needs of the plot than by strong characterization. The heart and soul of the story is the odd couple relationship between the irritable Bagheera and the jubilant Baloo—Mowgli is merely the loose end that brings them together. If Mowgli is the main character, then the film is a failure, as it's the story of a stubborn kid who (spoiler alert, I suppose) ultimately abandons his closest friends to satiate his raging adolescent hormones. However, if Bagheera and Baloo are the main characters (and there's plenty of evidence to suggest that they are—they share the final scene together, after all), then it's the story of two unlikely friends bonding under difficult circumstances.
The film is episodic in structure, but each segment benefits from richly-drawn characters (again, Mowgli is the exception), gorgeous animation and lovely music. Sebastian Cabot's crisp diction and prickly demeanor is perfect for Bagheera, while Phil Harris' big, friendly voice made Baloo one of Disney's most-beloved characters (it's no surprise they immediately attempted to recreate the character's success by recasting Harris in similar roles in The Aristocats and Robin Hood). Kaa, Col. Hathi, King Louie and the vultures only have a few minutes of screentime each, but they much an indelible impression. Best of all is Shere Khan, one of Disney's most intimidating and enjoyable villains. George Sanders brings such wicked venom to his line readings; oozing self-satisfied menace at every turn.
Then there's the music. My opinion on this tends to change based on which Disney film I've seen most recently, but The Jungle Book might just boast the finest soundtrack of any Disney flick. The songs (provided by the ever-reliable Sherman brothers) are just ridiculously infectious, from the joyful "The Bare Necessities" to the hypnotic "Trust in Me" to the barbershop quartet/British invasion cheer of "That's What Friends Are For." My personal favorite of the bunch is the swinging "I Wan'na Be Like You"—it's certainly easy enough to understand why Baloo finds himself overcome by the rhythm. On top of the songs, there's a terrific original score courtesy of George Bruns. Listen to that evocative main title piece, which so perfectly establishes the setting and playful-yet-ominous tone.
The Jungle Book (Blu-ray) has received a strong 1080p/1.75:1 transfer which opts for Disney's usual approach of scrubbing the film within an inch of its life. Grain has pretty much been obliterated, which is something I strongly dislike when it comes to live-action films but don't mind in the realm of animation. The image has been pretty well-scrubbed, but not at the expensive of animation detail. The images really pop, colors are bright and vibrant, detail is consistently stellar and blacks are deep and inky. It looks terrific, honestly, even if some purists may scoff. The DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio track isn't entirely necessary, as the track is a relatively simple one, but the music sounds robust and the dialogue is crisp and clean.
A combination of new and old supplements are included for your viewing pleasure. Let's start with the new stuff: three featurettes of varying quality (the excellent "Music, Memories and Mowgli," the middling "Disney Animation: Sparking Creativity" and the irritating "I Wan'na Be Like You"), a very interesting alternate ending, and a "Bear-E-Oke" sing-along feature which starts playing tunes every time you pause the film. Personally, I found this a little obnoxious, but kids will like it, I guess. Returning from the previous DVD edition of the film: the 46-minute making-of documentary "The Bare Necessities: The Making of The Jungle Book"; an audio commentary featuring composer Richard M. Sherman, animator Andrea Deja, actor Bruce Reitherman and a host of archival clips; several additional featurettes ("Disney's Kipling: Walt's Magic Touch on a Literary Classic," "The Lure of The Jungle Book," "Mowgli's Return to the Wild" and "Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston Discuss Character Animation"); a deleted scene; the Disney Song Selection and Disneypedia: Junglemania! interactive features; a Jonas Brothers music video; plus a DVD copy and a digital copy. A few bits of needless filler here and there, but plenty of substance for Disney animation fans to chew on.
Decades after its original release, The Jungle Book remains a tuneful, energetic treat. Viewers young and old are bound to have a grand time, whether they're revisiting the flick or experiencing it for the first time. Highly recommended.
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