Sunday, March 11, 2012

Classic Animation Theater : "The Jungle Book" (Part 1)

The Jungle Book
Distributor: Buena Vista Distribution Co.
Studio: Walt Disney Productions
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Producer: Walt Disney
Original Release Date: October 18, 1967

This review of The Jungle Book is dedicated to the great Robert Sherman (December 19, 1925-March 5, 2012), who co-wrote several songs for wonderful Disney films with his brother Richard Sherman. This phenomenal songwriting duo wrote the songs for films such as The Parent Trap!, The Sword in the Stone, Mary Poppins and several other Disney productions. Thanks for the memories and the music.

Regarding the first "Classic Animation Theater" review, let's just forget that happened. That was a bust. This is my attempt to re-boot this series, so here's hoping this trial is no error. Today, I'll be reviewing Walt Disney's animated classic, The Jungle Book.

The Jungle Book is one of the most popular Disney animated features, but it's also known for the fact that it was the final animated film that was personally supervised by Walt Disney himself. Is Walt's last animated film a good film? Did Walt go out with a bang? The answer is yes, although some may feel that The Jungle Book suffers from the same problems that plague the post-Sleeping Beauty animated output. Others may feel that it's yet another bowdlerization of classic literature. My take? It's a fun romp that isn't one of Disney's more serious efforts, but there's a lot of good in it.

After Sleeping Beauty failed to recoup its massive budget, Walt seemed to give up on animation. Production on the animated short films came to a halt in 1961 (theatrical short films were on their way out by this time, thanks to Saturday morning cartoons) and staff reduced from 500 to just a little over 100 people. His involvement with the animated features dwindled, as he focused more on the Disneyland television show, Disneyland itself and the live-action films. The studio pioneered Xerography for the animated features, making the production process quicker without inking and painting. It was experimented with during production of Sleeping Beauty, but it would be used for the studio's animated output, instead of being used for certain scenes. The process would be used for the entire short or feature film. The first of which was Goliath II, an interesting short subject that was initially attached to the 1960 live-action Disney film, Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus.

The first film done in the Xerox process was One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which would garner critical praise and become the highest grossing animated film at the box office at the time. Walt himself hated the rough look of the film. The Xerox process would also be used on The Sword in the Stone, a weak work of storytelling that still did reasonable business at the box office. Walt himself was disappointed, so he expected story man Bill Peet to step up his game for The Jungle Book, which Disney acquired the rights to in 1962.

Bill Peet's original treatment of the story was faithful to Kipling's books, it was a dark and complex story. Unfortunately, Walt didn't approve of it. He felt that the story was brooding, and he felt that everything was complicated. He also remarked that it was "too dark, like Batman". I can only imagine what could've happened if Bill Peet wrote this treatment back in the 1930s. Perhaps Walt would've approved of it, considering that the early Disney films are decidedly darker than the post-war films.

A lot of work was scrapped. Lyricist Terry Gilkyson (who wrote the songs for the three-part Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color special The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh) provided seven songs for the film, all of which were left out except for "The Bare Necessities", which would be re-tooled. Songwriting duo Robert and Richard Sherman ended up writing a new batch of songs to go along with the revamped project.

Afterwards, Bill Peet left the studio and became a children's author. Walt told his story team to have fun with Kipling's story and to not read the book. Thus The Jungle Book is loosely based on Kipling's story. Time Magazine commented on this in their review back when the film came out, as they stated "The Jungle Book is based on Kipling in the same way that a fox hunt is based on foxes." The story was changed completely, a story about Mowgli's adventures in the jungle, the animals he meets, and his eventual return to where he belongs.

The Jungle Book has the same episodic structure as The Sword in the Stone, but unlike that film, the story is front-and-center and it has a suitable ending. Sure, the film is a series of episodes where Mowgli meets the different characters, but it's still tied together with a main plot: Mowgli has to go back to the Man Village, and he also must avoid the deadly tiger Shere Khan.

The film opens with the panther Bagheera (voiced by Sebastian Cabot, who also did the narration for the three Winnie the Pooh short subjects) finding the infant Mowgli in a wrecked boat on the river. He decides to bring the "man cub" to the wolves, so they can raise him. The wolves name him Mowgli. When the boy gets older, Bagheera realizes that it's time to bring the boy back to where he belongs. Mowgli wants to live in the jungle. Bagheera explains to Mowgli that Shere Khan will kill him since he has a hatred of humans. Khan fears man's gun and man's fire, thus he is sworn to kill any human being.

Mowgli is ignorant and doesn't listen to Bagheera, even after nearly getting eaten by a hungry snake named Kaa. (Voiced by Disney veteran Sterling Holloway) Mowgli isn't scared, because he outsmarts the snake. The next morning, Mowgli encounters Col. Hathi and his troop of elephants. Hathi is a bumbling elephant who goes on and on about how an elephant never forgets, yet he forgets all the time. He's definitely a fun character, and the song sequence is certainly enjoyable.

Bagheera grows tired of Mowgli's attitude and threatens to take him back to the man village. He gives up, and tells the boy that he's on his own from this point on. Mowgli then meets Baloo, a sloth bear who is a fun-loving bum voiced by Phil Harris. The friendship between the two develops from there, and it's immediately heartwarming, thanks to the animation legends Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Baloo ultimately tells Bagheera off and teaches Mowgli about "The Bare Necessities". A delightful, upbeat song, "The Bare Necessities" is one of Disney's most famous songs.

As Mowgli and Baloo go down a calm river, a band of monkeys kidnap Mowgli and take him off to the ancient ruins. Baloo finds Bagheera and the two go after Mowgli. At the ruins, Mowgli is introduced to King Louie, a jazzy orangutan voiced by jazz singer Louis Prima. His song sequence ("I Wan'na Be Like You") is certainly the wildest scene in the film, which gets even better when Baloo dresses in drag and joins in on the fun. Baloo and King Louie deliver a hilarious jitterbug, animated by John Lounsbery. Then all of a sudden, Baloo's disguise comes off and a chase ensues. They escape just as the ruins towers come down.

That night, Bagheera and Baloo argue about Mowgli. Bagheera tells Baloo that Mowgli must go back to the man-village because of Shere Khan, and ultimately Baloo agrees to take Mowgli back. It's not as easy as it sounds, though. Baloo has a hard time explaining this to Mowgli, and when he does, the boy loses all of his trust in the bear and runs away. Baloo tries to find him.

We are then introduced to Shere Khan, voiced by George Sanders. He is easily one of the most exciting Disney villains, as Sanders brings out the menace in the tiger. Shere Khan knows how powerful he is, and he's confident about that. He's sly, he's suave and he's scary. The tiger eavesdrops on a conversation between Bagheera and Col. Hathi about Mowgli. Khan goes to find Mowgli. Where is Mowgli? Alone, without a friend and ultimately without any one to turn to. All of a sudden, he finds himself in the coils of Kaa.

Kaa sings a slow song called "Trust in Me" (a rewrite of a discarded Mary Poppins song, "The Land of Sand") as he hypnotizes the boy. He is interrupted by Shere Khan, who suspects that someone is up there in the tree. Kaa does his best to convince Khan that Mowgli isn't up there in a magnificent scene. Kaa finally gets Shere Khan to leave, but Mowgli outsmarts the snake once again. He runs away, which leads into the film's climax.

Mowgli then encounters four vultures, who are based on The Beatles and the other British Invasion bands at the time. The original plan was to have The Beatles themselves record the voices for the vultures and provide the song they were going to sing. Unfortunately, John Lennon angrily denied Walt's request and suggested that Walt would get Elvis Presley to do a voice and song instead. The idea of a British Invasion pop rock song was scrapped, thus the vultures were given a barbershop quartet song instead. Walt felt this was for the better, as he felt it would be timeless.

To think, The Beatles and Disney? That would be a match made in heaven. Who doesn't love The Beatles? (There's a lot of people who don't, so what am I saying?) Still, they managed to get Chad Stuart to provide one of the voices, the Chad of the British Invasion duo Chad & Jeremy. Still, if Disney stuck with a Beatle-y 60s pop rock song, it would've already seemed dated by October 1967 when the film came out. By that time, The Beatles were already far ahead of their early work with Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the soundtrack to Magical Mystery Tour and singles like "Strawberry Fields Forever".

Anyways, the vultures want to be Mowgli's friends and they sing their song to him. ("That's What Friends are For") Everything is interrupted by Shere Khan, who ends the song on an epic note with that baritone voice. Shere Khan threatens to kill Mowgli, though Mowgli shows no fear. Before Khan can kill Mowgli, Baloo stops him. The vultures also help stop the maniacal tiger, but Mowgli ultimately gets the better of the beast by tying a fiery branch to his tail, knowing Khan's fears. Khan runs away, and then the rains come.

During the fight, Khan delivers a deadly blow to Baloo. Mowgli assumes his friend is dead. (As the same George Bruns music we've heard in the sad scenes in Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone cues up) Bagheera tries to help Mowgli accept this. Baloo turns out to be alive and humorously mocks Bagheera's lengthy speech. All is fine, as the three of them are back together. Mowgli is then distracted by something.

He sees a young village girl, right outside of the man village, collecting water. Voiced by Darleen Carr, the girl sings a lovely song ("My Own Home") that entices Mowgli. He follows her back to the man village. Baloo accepts the fact that Mowgli is where he belongs, so he and Bagheera go back to where they belong, as the film ends with a reprise of "The Bare Necessities".

Continued in Part 2...

No comments:

Post a Comment