The Jungle Book was one of my favorite Disney movies as a kid, so I wanted to see if the movie held up as an adult. For the most part, I’m happy to report it’s still an enjoyable film, and certainly the best Disney movie of the ’60s. Very loosely adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s classic children’s literature, The Jungle Book follows the antics of Mowgli, a “man cub” adopted by a pack of wolves and raised with the help of Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther.
Why does The Jungle Book still hold up? First of all, the movie has a lot of artistic talent behind it. The jungle backdrops are like something out of a painting, and display some excellent color choices. From the start of the film, you’re really drawn into this atmosphere. The character designs are appealing and memorable, which is no easy feat considering that everyone (aside from Mowgli) is a standard animal and could’ve been generic looking had they been in lesser hands. Part of why they don’t look generic is because of the animation; it’s classic Disney so it’s guaranteed to be top notch. Besides displaying that full animation feel that we’ve come to expect from the studio, every character has their own style of movement and it really adds a lot of personality to the film.
And that’s the key word here: Personality. The reason the movie works so well is because of the distinct characters; they all have great chemistry with each other, which is a high compliment for an animated movie. The main conflict in the film is that Mowgli, a lost boy who was raised by wolves and feels more at home in the wilderness than with man, must inevitably return to his own kind. But he can’t imagine living any other way, so he’s against the idea, which leaves the panther Bagheera, his self-appointed temporary guardian, quite frustrated. Mowgli’s decision isn’t made any easier by the fun-loving, easy-going bear Baloo, who takes him under his wing and enjoys having a companion he can raise like a son. This struggle plays out nicely in one of my favorite scenes in the film, when Bagheera reasons with Baloo that Mowgli can’t stay with him forever; Baloo reluctantly agrees to do what’s best for the boy, but it pains him to do it because he enjoys spending time with Mowgli. The subtle facial expressions when Baloo’s struggling to tell Mowgli the bad news are just perfect.
There are plenty of other unique characters here, like Kaa the manipulative python, who wants to eat Mowgli. With his wispy voice, hypnotic stare, and incredibly long body, he provides plenty of creative gags and set pieces. Then there’s King Louie, a swinging orangutan who wants to use Mowgli for his own ends (specifically, to obtain fire). The marching elephants, portrayed as an Army troop, was a brilliant choice and makes for some great comedy when the leader inspects everyone. There are four vultures, a couple of which have Beatles-style voices and haircuts, who offer an amusing “So what are we gonna do today?” back-and-forth running gag and want to be Mowgli’s friend later in the film. And of course, we have the main villain of our story, the upper crust, snooty tiger Shere Khan, who will kill Mowgli before he grows up and becomes a threat. The movie sets him up nicely: We never see him until about 25 minutes from the end, so the rest of the movie sporadically builds up how much of a threat he is through the way the other characters talk about him. It’s a fine storytelling choice and only makes his debut all the more engaging.
No, this isn’t the most plot-heavy film; it’s a series of set pieces with Mowgli interacting with the various jungle animals, some of which are good and some of which are bad. But this storytelling style works for two reasons: One, this movie is based off a series of short stories by Rudyard Kipling, so it’s understandable that the movie would be a bit episodic. And two, it’s not like the set pieces don’t have a point; they all reinforce that Mowgli doesn’t quite fit into this world. Besides, the movie has a natural flow to how the scenes connect together; for instance, when Bagheera gets irritated with Mowgli’s insistence that he stay in the jungle, he briefly abandons him. Cue Baloo, who quickly takes a liking to the boy. And just when the two begin to bond, Mowgli is kidnapped by some apes (led by the aforementioned King Louie), prompting both Baloo and a guilt-ridden Bagheera to rescue him. It’s not a movie where you have a scene, fade to black, then have another scene, fade to black. It all ties together.
There’s a sense of joy to this film, and a large part of that is due to the vocal performances and pitch-perfect casting that make these characters come to life. Phil Harris plays Baloo, who was wisely told not to play the character as a bear, but just be himself. As a result, we have an iconic voice that fits the bachelor lifestyle character. Sebastian Cabot also fits the bill as the stern, uptight Bagheera, whose slight British accent lends well to his personality. And despite coming into the film late, George Sanders does a magnificent job as Shere Khan: Despite staying calm and collected, he exudes menace and cockiness in the underplayed delivery, letting you know he’s in charge whenever he’s on-screen.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the songs. After 101 Dalmatians, which wasn’t a musical for the most part, and The Sword in the Stone, whose melodies were mostly forgettable, The Jungle Book is a fine return to form for a studio known for its animated musicals. For my money, the goofy oompah piece that is “The Bear Necessities” and the jazzy, New Orleans-style “I Want to Be Like You” are some of the catchiest, most iconic songs the studio ever did, and even the slower pieces like Kaa’s seductive “Trust in Me” and the final song, “When I’m Home” (beautifully sung by a village girl) work for different reasons, be it the staging or the context. The only song I’m not crazy about is the vulture group’s “We’re Your Friends,” a barbershop-style number. Mind you, it’s not bad, but compared to the rest of the songs in the film, it’s not as good.
There is a nice amount of special material on this 2-disc set. Granted, much of it is recycled from the initial DVD release, but considering I never bought that release, it was new to me. First, I’ll discuss the brand new Blu-ray special features.
Kicking this off is “Music, Memories & Mowgli: A Conversation With Richard M. Sherman, Diane Disney, and Floyd Norman,” a 9-minute reminiscing about various aspects of the production. While it’s always enjoyable for the classic animation fan in me to hear from staff who worked in that era, this “round-table” piece is woefully short. There must have been tons of stories from the making of this movie, and we only get a handful. A more extensive video is found elsewhere on the disc, which I’ll describe below.
Most curious here is an alternate ending, running eight minutes. Recently, in a rummage of the Disney archives, an unused ending was discovered, and Disney artist Raymond S. Persi created storyboards for it, also imitating the voices. Frankly, this unused ending is terrible, and I’m glad it was shelved. The reason it’s bad is because it’s needlessly complicated, puts too much focus on the humans from the village (who would’ve been introduced way too late in the movie as it was), and loses the focus of the story and its themes. Thank goodness it wasn’t used, but it was nice to see it for historical purposes.
Next we get an 18-minute tour of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, hosted by two teens I’ve never heard of. Having not been to Animal Kingdom, it was interesting seeing the zoologists describe their daily tasks. Some trivia about the animals they take care of is also mentioned.
Then, a 9-minute piece about the Disney studio starting a program to encourage its artists to experiment with new styles of animation. The brief glimpse of a short film we got looked pretty innovative. And of course, there have been some unique animated shorts from Disney in recent memory, such as Paperman.
As for the features recycled from the old DVD: We have a 46-minute “making of” documentary, which is a lot more substantial than the new Blu-ray features. A major theme throughout this documentary is how much more hands-on Walt Disney was in this movie than the last couple, and I think that made a big difference to its execution. It also covers how Walt’s death in 1966 affected production.
Next up, we have a 15-minute comparison between the original Rudyard Kipling stories and Disney’s take on the material; having not read the Kipling material (yes, I suck), it was surprising how many changes were made. But many of the changes worked in the film’s favor by stripping out things that complicated what really mattered to Disney: The character interactions. As stated in the featurette, Disney brought the story down to its “bare necessities,” and that gave the film some focus.
A 9-minute featurette called “The Lure of the Jungle Book” features interviews with modern/former Disney staff such as Brad Bird and Glen Keane, who explain its success and why they like the film.
“Mowgli’s Return to the Wild” is a 5-minute featurette concerning Bruce Reitherman (voice of Mowgli), who is now a filmmaker in his own right. He cites some of his father’s words of wisdom and talks about his work on the film.
A 3-minute interview with animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston is also here, and much like “Music, Memories & Mowgli,” feels too brief, especially considering how much we could learn from these animation legends. That said, I did like Ollie’s point that if you don’t give something your all, it will haunt you (in his case, not pouring his heart and soul into character animation). His final comment was also bittersweet: He gets wistful when he works on the last scene, because it’ll be the last time he works on those characters.
Another thing I didn’t realize is that there was originally going to be a character named Rocky the Rhino, which a 6-minute featurette reveals. The goofy-voiced Rocky seemed to grab the spotlight from the vultures, so it’s probably best he was excised. But, like the deleted ending, I’m glad to know more of the history of this film.
Then we get “Junglemania,” a 14-minute featurette aimed mostly at the younger set, where a narrator covers the real-life versions of the animals in the film, and lists some educational facts about them. This is okay but, like the Animal Kingdom doc, only partially ties into The Jungle Book.
A feature-length audio commentary is also present, and mostly features songwriter Richard Sherman, Bruce Reitherman, and modern Disney animator Andres Deja (who claims this is the film that inspired him to work in animation), though we get archival audio from Wolfgang Reitherman (the director of the film) and animator Ollie Johnston, among others. The commentary is at its best when it provides info on who animated what. The participants also do a great job explaining why the movie works so well.
They also threw in a music video by the Jonas Bros. Not being a fan of boy bands, I have to admit I skipped that.
Mostly I was pleased with the Blu-ray set; it has a fine selection of bonuses and the video quality is stellar as usual. However, I have one complaint: Whenever you pause the Blu-ray disc, it cuts to sing-alongs after five seconds, and depending on the remote you’re using, it can be confusing at first how to get back to the movie. The same thing occurred on the last couple of Disney sets (Monsters U featured videos of trivia, for example), and it’s a perplexing decision. When I pause a movie, it should remain quiet! The whole point of pausing is to be able to go do something, not have the disc cut to something else. I really hope this feature doesn’t become a regular occurrence.
The Jungle Book is a delightful Disney film, with pleasing artwork, catchy songs, iconic and original characters, amusing gags, and some memorable set pieces. It’s definitely my favorite pre-80s Disney film, and continues to entertain even as an adult. The Blu-ray/DVD set comes highly recommended.