Original Release: October 1967
Runtime: 78 Minutes
Directed By: Wolfgang Reitherman
Growing up is hard. Growing up in the jungle is even more difficult. Growing up in the jungle, making friends with panthers, bears and wolves, and then being told you have to go back to live with mankind or a tiger will eat you? That’s pretty tough indeed. It also just so happens to be the story of our next Vault Disney film, and also the last to have Walt’s production seal of approval. The Jungle Book is, at its heart, a story about a little boy who isn’t ready to grow up, like so many Disney films before it. Yet, unlike those others, it features the young man interacting with a cast of lively and often hilarious or scary animal characters and while it was based on Rudyard Kipling’s book by the same name, it manages to change the source material just enough to transcend the creepy, sinister tone of the novel, in order to become something the whole family can enjoy.
The story of The Jungle Book was originally brought to Walt by Disney story-man Bill Peet, who you might remember from 101 Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone. Bill felt that the company was capable of doing more with animals and making them more interesting. He thought that The Jungle Book was the perfect opportunity to do this. Walt asked Bill to write a treatment for the film, with the knowledge that Walt himself would be more involved with the finished product, unhappy with the critical response to Sword in the Stone. Peet’s original work followed the book very closely, staying true to a very dark and often violent tone that discussed the battle between mankind and animals. Peet was also responsible for creating the characters of King Louie and the human girl at the end of the film. In the book, Mowgli, our hero, goes back and forth between the man world and the animal world. In the film, Walt wanted the story to end with Mowgli going to the man world and felt that love was a good excuse for it.
Peet and Walt often disagreed but when Walt told Peet that he wanted the film to be lighter and family friendly, an argument ensued as Bill refused. This ended in January 1964 with Peet leaving Disney Studios for good. Walt replaced him with Larry Clemmons who went on to become one of the four story men for the film.
The film also marked a turn for the company in that they were starting to let their characters take shape based on the actors who were playing them. Phil Harris, the voice of Baloo the bear, often improved his lines to great success and the animators formed the character based on his version of it, more than the original script. Shere Khan the tiger even had much of his appearance and long face based on the actor who played him, George Sanders. I also want to mention that the lovable voice of Winnie the Pooh and the Cheshire Cat appears in this film as Kaa, the no good snake. A huge jump from the upcoming live action version played by Scarlet Johannson.
Two other fun casting stories come from the vultures and Mowgli himself. The vultures might look familiar as if they are based on a certain popular British band. This is because they were meant to be based on the Beatles and the Beatles were even set to play them. Sadly, scheduling issues which led to John Lennon becoming upset meant the idea did not come to fruition, yet the looks of the vultures remain very similar. Mowgli himself was was originally cast as David Bailey but during production, the young actor’s voice changed, making him not sound innocent enough. The director, Wolgang Reitherman responded by casting his own son in the roll instead. Think of The Jungle Book as a family affair.
The Jungle Book definitely shows us a very different world than we are used to from Disney films. This is a deep forest where danger is waiting at every corner and much like Pinocchio, Mowgli is often tempted off the road he is meant to travel. He wants to stay in the jungle and we can think of the jungle as childhood, where leaving is growing up. He’ll do anything to stay, including joining up with any animal who promises he won’t have to leave. He also has a huge amount of curiosity. He wants to try everything and this includes being every animal. He attempts to be a monkey, an elephant and even a bear in an effort to find his place and prolong the inevitable.
This film has one of the strongest cast of characters we’ve seen yet. Bagheera, a panther who really resembles Jiminy Cricket in his pursuit of what is right, is a lovable if not grumpy leader and guide for Mowgli. Yet, he’s a bit prone to mind games. He ‘gives up’ on Mowgli and takes off until the boy either calls for help or learns his lesson every other minute it seems and for someone who is trying so hard to get Mowgli to safety, he sure doesn’t have a hard time leaving him alone almost constantly. Still, his is a character who thinks before acting and provides a strong presence on the screen. I also have to say that the movements of the animals in this film are superb and really lend to them being actual characters.
Baloo is the exact opposite of Bagheera and sorry Baggy, but Baloo is the most memorable character in this film. He is carefree and in many ways has plenty of his own growing up to do. He likes to dance and sing and lounge around all day and generally do what bears do. The Bear Necessities is our first really memorable song in a while and it is so catchy! I found myself humming it all day following our watching of this film. On a side note, I often scratch my back using the corners of walls and I am beginning to wonder if I didn’t pick up that habit from this film. It’s a mystery to be solved for sure.
I also think the animation of Kaa is to be complimented. In a film where all the characters are so expressive and lively with their arms and legs and tails, Kaa is a bit of an anomaly. Because he has no limbs, the animators chose to give him very large eyes and an expressive mouth to make sure that his character shone through just as much as everyone else. Kaa is a fairly hilarious villain, someone who gets so caught up in playing with his food that he rarely gets to eat it. I noticed, because of Kaa, that this film reused some animation, surely to save on money, where Kaa falls out of the tree. Both times are nearly identical. Later on, I think we will see more of this animation re-using feature but it was interesting to spot it here for the first time.
I don’t think I fully grasped King Louie’s plight as a child. He was always this fun orangutan who danced and played jazz, but now I see one of the more sinister characters of the film. In a roll usually reserved for the dragon in a fantasy film, Louie is driven by pure greed. He desires only more power and would be right at home in Jungle of Thrones, the Indian spin-off of Game of Thrones. He desires the one thing he considers to be man’s strength, fire, and thinks that all men know how to make it. It’s interesting how everyone in the jungle wants to get closer to Mowgli when in actuality, he is the most physically weak character in the film.
Mowgli is beautifully animated and this is definitely the most connected I’ve felt to a male lead in a Disney film yet. The plight of wanting to have fun always and never get old is something that Peter Pan explored but the fact that Mowgli is so small and innocent made the idea resonate better with me for some reason. We know that he has to leave the forest, but we don’t want him to because we, as viewers, come to love his friends the animals as much as he does. My heart broke when he found out Baloo was going to take him to the man village and he decided that he was all alone in the world. It’s a painful thought to know that everyone you love is trying to do what is best for you, even if it’s not what you want right now. This is a powerful idea and one that we usually see in many Pixar films. It’s universal and I connected with it maybe more than I’ve connected with any film so far on our list.
Shere Khan is a curious villain. His reputation seems to be more terrifying than he actually is. We hear a lot about him and honestly, by the time he showed up and we saw that his big evil power was retractable claws I sort of thought, ‘meh, no biggie.’ I love his voice and the fact that he’s a very thoughtful villain with a clear reason for going after Mowgli, man is bad, but I just felt like he didn’t have enough presence in the film. His exit is also a bit rushed. After so much of the film being afraid of the tiger, Mowgli wraps a burning stick to his tail and away he goes. There is a threat there as Shere Khan attacks Baloo and for a while we think that the old bear is dead, but Shere Khan never really lived up to the crazy scary ways of Cruella or Maleficent.
Then comes the inevitable moment when Mowgli finally finds the man village and funnily enough, it’s not painful to watch him go, because deep down, we knew this was where he belonged. I think it’s sort of funny that the thing that pushes him over the edge is love. Especially since he and the overly flirtatious girl who sings to him are so young. Seriously? You guys are too young for this. It’s a difficult choice to make and I love seeing Bagheera and Baloo really come to the point of Devil and Angel on Mowgli’s shoulder as Bagheera yells for him to go while Baloo tells him to come back.
If I have one complaint about this film, and it’s a small one, it would be the backgrounds. I found the jungle itself to get very monotonous by the end. If this were a play, I feel that you could use the same background for the entirety of the performance as it never really seems to change. Sure, sometimes it’s night and sometimes it’s day and at one point there’s an old palace but…that’s it. I really felt like we were going through the same part of the jungle over and over again and I was begging for a color that wasn’t green by the end.
The Jungle Book was very successful at the box office, surely in part due to the sentimental fact of it coming out after Walt’s passing. It led the way to Disney being able to stay strong in his absence and being that it’s such an excellent film, I found it to be a perfect way to say farewell. It encapsulates ideas we’ve seen Walt employ time and time again. What is it like to learn to grow up? What is the world like from the eyes of someone else? How can we face our fears? With a little imagination, we can be anything we want. The Jungle Book is profound and moving in ways I didn’t expect and I have no trouble saying that it was one of my favorites so far.
With that, I’ll leave you with the trailer for the live action version which is coming up next year and, oh man, I cannot wait for this one!
Next Up: The Aristocats
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NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head over HERE and check it out!