There are two very distinctive schools of thought about Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book. There are the Kipling fanatics who have never forgiven Disney for taking a story considered sacred in literary circles and creating something that honestly bears (pardon the pun) little resemblance to the original work. These folks rightfully point out that the story contains almost nothing recognizable about the story and characters from Kipling’s beloved classic. I have often condemned projects that take names like The Night Stalker and Battlestar Galactica and create a vision incompatible with the traditions I associate with them. Therefore this review might seem a bit hypocritical when I tell you I side with the other camp that considers this film to be a milestone, not only in Disney animation, but in animation history itself. The characters might be distantly removed remote ancestors to Kipling’s creatures, but they are truly classic creations in their own right. What better definition of a classic can there be than the influence that Jungle Book still has 40 years later, not only on our pop culture but on the careers and lives of today’s artists. I venture to say that more people are familiar with Disney’s renderings of these characters than Kipling’s I agree the caparison isn’t exactly fair, but it is accurate.
So, why do I think this isn’t the same as the “reimaginings” I’ve condemned in these very pages? I begin by pointing out that we’re talking about a film that has stood the test of time, perhaps enduring beyond its own roots. The second is the fact that this version is not the same medium as its original. When ABC aired The Night Stalker, it was reinventing its original in the same medium, that of a television series. Disney’s The Jungle Book is an animated film whose audience is nothing like that intended for the stories. This distinction was not lost on Walt Disney himself, who lost a close friend and colleague over his decision to create this vision of The Jungle Book. Long-time “go to” man Bill Peet had originally developed the Kipling story for Disney. He kept quite close to the source material and submitted storyboards that told a decidedly darker story with far more dire consequences and darker characters. The impasse led to his leaving Disney Studios forever. As Peter Jackson discovered, film is a far different presentation than the written word, and what works for one does not often translate verbatim to the other. Ask anyone who’s ever tried to develop a Stephen King novel. Walt Disney was attempting to deliver a children’s film that the whole family could enjoy. He rightly deduced that the compelling tale Kipling intended simply wouldn’t translate into the kind of adventure Disney fans were already expecting by 1966. Instead, Disney ordered his staff to avoid reading Kipling and concentrate on delivering characters that the entire family could enjoy. The result is, simply put, unforgettable.
To appreciate The Jungle Book, you first have to look at the animation itself. As many of this set’s features will point out, Disney and his talented staff were far ahead of the curve in the images they were creating. Even though the characters are improbably distorted in their features from their photorealistic counterparts, the animators infused genuine life into them through fluid movements and deceptive eye tricks that convinced your brain these characters had weight to them as they moved. Simple lines represented muscle tensions and skin creases with enough detail to compensate for the fantastic element of the characters themselves. It is no wonder so many animators consider this film to be a turning point in their lives. It would be impossible to talk about these characters and ignore the voices who added a soul to them. What a perfect voice cast it was. Sabastian Cabot as Bagheera the panther is also the film’s story teller, and who better than Sebastian Cabot who had just told the Winnie The Pooh story. Winnie The Pooh himself, Sterling Halloway plays Ka, the treacherous python. Perhaps it was Phil Harris who became the identity of the show bringing his own blend of charm and backwoods manners to the critical character of Baloo. Musician Louis Prima has the best musical number as King Louie in “I Wanna Be Like You”. Bruce Reitherman was the son of director Wolfgang and likely landed the part based on his fortunate circumstances, but he is in no way a drag on the film. Walt had a way of matching voice talent that completed his grand illusion to perfection.
Critics are usually harshest on the film’s story, and with good reason. The basic idea is pretty thin. In fact the finished project is far closer to Homer’s The Odyssey than to Kipling’s Jungle Book. Kipling tells the story of man’s havoc on the Indian jungles and allows Mowgli to pass frequently between the jungle and his
Deleted Scene: There was originally a Rhino character named Rocky. Rocky was a Mr. Magoo clone who was rather dimwitted and nearly blind. He was to encounter Mowgli along with the vultures during the “Let’s Be Friends” segment. This feature shows you the Rocky sequence through the use of storyboards and narration as the original was discarded before it was ever shot. Johnny Fontain provided the character’s voice. The clip also features a recording of a Beatles-sounding tune the vultures originally sang before the barbershop number was substituted. Its quality is rough, but worth a listen; it even has the yeah yeah yeahs.
Music And More: This sub menu contains links to a few more extras on Disc One.
“I Wanna Be Like You” Music Video: God is this thing bad. The Jonus Brothers perform a “modern” version of the King Louie tune that will hurt your ears. It’s pretty ugly, folks.
Deleted Songs: The music for the film was decidedly different in Bill Peet’s darker toned original screenplay. These are scratchy demos of music written for that unproduced version. WARNING! There is no video with these selections, merely a static title screen that does not change. You might need to concern yourself about screen burn here, particularly if you have kids who take a liking to a tune and watch/listen to it over and over again.
Ensuring A Future For Wildlife And Wild Places: While this is really a plea for donations to Disney’s Wildlife Conservation Group, it is actually a rather nice look at Disney and animals and their rich history of creating memorable creatures.
A nice touch is added by giving you the running times for each feature as you highlight it.
This section carries most of the documentary styled features.
Disney’s Kipling: This short feature explores the Bill Peet/Walt Disney visions and compares both with Kipling’s own story.
The Lore Of The Jungle Book: Mostly contemporary animators talk about how the film shaped their own lives and projects.
Mowgli’s Return To The Jungle: Bruce Reitherman, who voiced the young Mowgli, has become an accomplished nature documentary filmmaker. He talks about the film and mostly the influence on his life and work of his father who was also a Disney director, working on The Jungle Book.
Frank And Ollie: Both of these friends contributed a ton to The Jungle Book animation. They arrived at Disney at 19 years of age and worked together though old age collaborating on various Disney projects. This is vintage footage of them working together on The Jungle Book.
This is the second menu on Disc Two.
It features various games and interactive videos to keep the kiddies occupied.
Baloo’s Virtual Swingin’ Jungle Cruise: Baloo floats down the jungle river encountering places and characters from the film. The segments feature some interactivity that did not work well on any of my DVD players. I suspect a few tossed remotes might be the consequence of allowing your kids to play here.
Disneypedia Junglemania: This is an educational look at the real jungles and animals of
The Jungle Book Fun With Language Game: Multi language matching game for the very young.
Art Gallery: Tons of photographs and concept art for you to navigate through.
Sadly, this would be the final animation film overseen by Walt Disney himself. His passing brought sweeping changes to the animation empire, and an era was closed. If you never saw The Jungle Book as a child, you might not be able to appreciate the charm a child’s first viewing installs deep in your brain. This DVD is a chance to introduce it to your own children. Isn’t it great when you can share moments like that? It’s like watching The Grinch at Christmas time with someone who’s never seen it. But these were days before computers could create anything our mind can conceive, the days when animators used pencil and paper to give life to inanimate objects. To think. They did it with only “the simple bare necessities”.
You can view a nice sample from the DVD.
See how The Jungle Book influenced later Disney classics like The Lion King.