Cats, mice, crickets, wolves, and man-cubs...Judge Dennis Prince often wonders where in the food chain man really resides in light of the admonishments regularly handed down by these "lesser" creatures.
From the legendary animator Chuck Jones comes two family-friendly tales that will entertain viewers of all ages.
In Mowgli's Brothers, we're offered a very quick and economical adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. It runs at a very trim 24 minutes, so producer/director/writer Jones needs to cover a lot of ground quickly as he unfolds this tale of a stray human infant taken in by a family of wolves. Beginning with a rather stylish opening sequence in which narrator Roddy McDowell recites the Law of the Jungle (reminiscent of the lore imparted at the opening of Watership Down), we soon meet a wolf couple that learns from the shifty jackal, Tabaqui, that the fierce white tiger, Sheer Kahn, intends to hunt in this area of the jungle at the next moon. But it is not beast that Sheer Kahn seeks but, rather, man. Just then, the stray human infant Mowgli appears and immediately appeals to the mothering instincts of Mother Wolf while eliciting the protective nature of Father Wolf. Despite Sheer Kahn's attempts to demand Mowgli be handed over, the boy is accepted into the pack and afforded their protection. Some 11 years later, Mowgli has grown and soon finds that, while he was once protected by the pack, he must now protect the wolf leader from the pack at the blood-thirsty insistence of the vicious Sheer Kahn.
In the mid- to later-'70s, Chuck Jones took to animating various Rudyard Kipling works. In this particular 1976 animated adventure, the material is more serious than Jones's usual fare, and he does well animating such life-lesson fables. He keeps a bit of the Looney Tunes-ish slapstick via Tabaqui, who is definitely reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote. Mowgli himself is rendered as cute as a baby's behind (literally) with a face that looks familiar to that of Cindy-Lou Who. Unfortunately, this isn't what I'd consider a standout effort by Jones, yet, as it stands, it's reasonably entertaining, buoyed significantly by the mellifluous Roddy McDowell's narration and voice characterization throughout.
The second program on this disc, the 1973 holiday special A Very Merry Cricket, plays a bit more fanciful than the lead feature and feels to be better suited to Jones's talents. Chester, the musical cricket originally introduced in the same year's A Cricket in Times Square, is back, along with Tucker the mouse and Harry the cat. This time, Harry and Tucker are concerned that commercialism and cynicism are endangering the enduring spirit of the Christmas season. Witnessing the ire and insincerity that afflict the New Yorkers around them, the cat and mouse team travels to Chester's home state of Connecticut to urge him to come to New York, play his beautiful music, and remind the city inhabitants of the true meaning of Christmas.
This feature plays as somewhat similar to Jones's 1966 still-unchallenged triumph How the Grinch Stole Christmas, yet it lacks the unparalleled charm that was clearly due to Dr. Seuss. Unfortunately, A Very Merry Cricket liberally beats us into submission with its insistence that the holiday has become so overrun with greed and selfishness (not that I'll ever argue that sentiment, I'm sorry to say, yet expositions like this need to show more of the preferable alternative). It plays a bit heavier, then, yet seems to be a statement of Jones's own disappointment in mankind's manipulative bent for a holiday that should be revered much higher than it was in 1973 (and now look where we are). The ending, though, holds a decent resolution—you might even call it a deserved comeuppance—that plays to the long-standing sentiment that if we could just strip away all the bombast, bustle, and blinking lights, the Spirit of Christmas would be readily at hand to fully and genuinely warm our hearts.
Both programs here are presented in their original full-frame broadcast format. The source material is remarkably clean; there is a bit of dirt and damage but nothing that appears distracting in any significant way. The colors are quite rich, and, thankfully, neither program is afflicted with the overt edge enhancement that often besmirches animated features. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio tracks are more than suitable here and provide a clean aural presentation. Sadly, there are no extras on this value-priced disc.
While neither of these made-for-TV features is truly memorable in its own right, it is nice to see Lions Gate (under the Family Home Entertainment imprint) offer up these lesser-heralded yet nonetheless occasionally remembered productions. In the end, probably many folks out there will remember one or both of these features fondly and will be pleased with the presentation. Although not true favorites of my own, they still earn my recommendation to anyone familiar with the content and definitely to Chuck Jones fans.
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