The Jungle Book was the final Disney animated film produced by Uncle Walt himself (who died the year before its release, in 1966). Fittingly, it ranks among the best post-war Disney films, although as an adaptation of Kipling’s stories about the wolf-boy Mowgli The Jungle Book is a more Disneyfied and less effective take on its source material than One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Sleeping Beauty and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
This was no accident: Disney believed (probably rightly) that Kipling’s tone was too dark and serious for a Disney film, and actually kept the source material out of the hands of his team. Longtime Disney collaborator Terry Gilkyson was originally contracted to write the songs, but his efforts were “too Kipling” according to Disney, who brought in the Sherman Brothers to do new songs — with the proviso that they not read the source material.
The result is a bouncy soundtrack that ranks among Disney’s best, and is The Jungle Book’s chief claim to fame (as suggested by the canny tagline, “The Jungle is Jumpin’!”). Ironically, the film’s signature song is the one Gilkyson number that Disney retained: “The Bare Necessities,” with gravelly baritone Phil Harris (in the first of three consecutive Disney performances) as Baloo the bear. The other standout is “I Wanna Be Like You,” featuring jazz great Louis Prima as the anthropophilic orangutan King Louie.
As interpreted by Disney and director Wolfgang Reitherman, The Jungle Book is essentially a coming-of-age parable about carefree childhood and adult responsibility, embodied respectively by Mowgli’s two mentors, Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther (Sebastian Cabot). Despite his wish to live as a beast of the forest, Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman) finally claims his birthright as a man by taking up fire against Shere Khan the tiger (George Sanders), and is seduced into civilized life by the batting eyelids and melodic crooning of a young village beauty.
Visually, The Jungle Book is unremarkable Disney, although the animation benefits from nice naturalistic flourishes, especially in the movements of Mowgli and Bagheera: the loping, ambling walk of the boy as he swishes a stick in the grass; the feline grace of the panther’s silent, gliding movement through interlacing tree branches and mid-river stepping stones.
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I’ve always been unhappy with Disney’s interpretation of The Jungle Book, or at least of Baloo. Kipling’s portrayal of Baloo is as the embodiment of wisdom, the one who teaches the Law of the Jungle to the cubs of the wolf pack. Disney’s Baloo seems to me to be a rather silly and lazy creature — fun to be with, perhaps, but not the beast of stature one finds in the original. He sort of reminds me of Shakespeare’s portrayal of Falstaff. I say this with the understanding that The Jungle Book may be an excellent film on its own merits.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.