Sunday, March 11, 2012

Classic Animation Theater : "The Jungle Book" (Part 3)

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

Bill Peet
Disney story man Bill Peet's original treatment for The Jungle Book was certainly interesting, and had Walt approved of his version of the story, who knows what the film would've been like. The Sword in the Stone, the previous animated film, suffered from a story that was little more than just a couple episodes of Arthur and Merlin's adventures that was strung together with a nonexistent plot with a lazy ending. Walt had barely any involvement with that film, and it was the first Disney animated film to be handled by a single director since The Three Caballeros. This would continue until the late 1970s, with the influx of new animators.

Peet wanted the story to be faithful to Kipling's stories, taking plots and ideas from The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book. As I mentioned in the last part, there was going to be another villain named Buldeo. He was a manipulative hunter from the man village who wanted Mowgli to take him to the home of the monkeys. Underneath the palace is treasure. Mowgli, being clever, leads Buldeo to Shere Khan. The tiger kills the nasty hunter, and Mowgli takes the dead hunter's gun and shoots Khan with it. Imagine that ending for a Disney animated film...

Rocky the Rhino
A rhinoceros character made it into the revised version, only to be scrapped. In Peet's version, the rhino is a minor character who wants to kill Mowgli. In the revised version, he was made into a near-sighted character named Rocky and was supposed to sing with the vultures, back when the song was supposed to sound like a British Invasion pop rock song. He was to be voiced by Frank Fontaine (Crazy Guggenheim), but the character was scrapped because Walt believed there was a little too much action in the film.

The beginning was also re-tooled. In Peet's treatment, an infant Mowgli was stuck to a log going down the river as Bagheera tries to save him. Bagheera fails, but the mother wolf saves the infant. In the finished film, we see Mowgli in the wrecked canoe in the film's first scene. In the original books, Mowgli often went to the man village and then back to the jungle, which probably lead to the scrapped songs "I Knew I Belonged To Her", "In a Day's Work" and "The Mighty Hunters".

Peet essentially wanted to stay true to the Kipling story while adding to it. Peet had always wanted to do a film adaptation of the books since the 1930s, and if Walt had bought the rights to the books back then, perhaps something like this version would've been the finished film. Walt had a different mindset back in the late 1930s. He hungered for ambitious projects, great works of storytelling. In the mid 1960s, Walt stayed away from ambitious animated films for good. He stayed away from them for the most part after World War II, but he tried again with Sleeping Beauty, which ultimately failed. The reduction of the staff and the introduction of Xerography made matters worse. Walt wanted a simpler story.

Walt focused more on the characters themselves, as he was more involved with this film than he was with One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone. Under Walt's guidance, the characters were changed and became some of the best in a Disney film with great personalities. Unfortunately, Walt seemed to have forgotten about the story, which does smack of the flaws that were present in The Sword in the Stone.

Then again, perhaps Peet's version suffered from similar problems. Perhaps Peet focused more on the story itself than the characters and their personalities. Perhaps it was another string of episodes much like The Sword in the Stone with no focus. We will never know how that version would've turned out. What if Walt bought the rights to the books back in the 1930s? Would we have seen a darker, more ambitious version of The Jungle Book alongside Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi in the early 1940s with elaborate animation? That said, the finished film is good the way it is. Certainly not an excellent work of storytelling, but a film with a lot of heart and very appealing characters.

The Jungle Book's animation is a mixed bag to say the least. While the character animation from Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsberry and Milt Kahl shines, the animation is plagued with a few problems. For starters, the film recycles animation from several Disney animated films. This was a rather unhealthy trend that started at Disney in the early 1960s, though animation had been recycled a few times before that. Mowgli playing with his wolf brothers is the same animation of Arthur being greeted by Tiger and Talbot in The Sword in the Stone. The chase at the ruins is taken from the Wind in the Willows segment of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The elephants crashing into each other was taken straight from the 1960 short subject, Goliath II. The deer that Shere Khan is hunting when he is first introduced? That's Bambi's mother. That same scene of her was used in The Sword in the Stone, The Rescuers and Beauty and the Beast. Also, Kaa is off model during the "Trust in Me" sequence since that was an eleventh hour addition to the film.

The Xerox lines are everywhere on the animals, but the overall look of the film is still good. The art direction is a little more detailed, though it's no Bambi. The very sketchy background designs didn't work for The Sword in the Stone, thus the artists corrected their mistakes for this film. That sketchy background designs were more suited for One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Aristocats, given their big city settings. The jungles have a nice look with lots of colors and details. In addition to the good art direction, the character animation is fine. The character designs are bursting with personality and emotion, while also looking like the celebrities who provided their voices.

The Jungle Book was still in production when Walt Disney passed away. He did not live to see the finished ending of the film. He passed away on December 15, 1966. The film was finished shortly after and released in theaters in the United States on October 18, 1967 on a double-bill with the live action Disney film, Charlie the Lonesome Cougar. Critics gave the film positive reviews, and audiences ate the film up. It was one of the biggest films of the year. Adjusted for inflation, it is one of the highest grossing animated films of all time. It also had an influence on notable animators, such as Richard Williams (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) and Disney animator Andreas Deja. The success of the film gave Walt Disney Productions confidence, as work began on the next film, The Aristocats.

What's also interesting is that in 1968, an album called More Jungle Book was released, a continuation of the film's story featuring Phil Harris and Louis Prima reprising their roles as Baloo and King Louie. The album's storyline was written by Larry Clemmons, one of the film's writers.

Like all of the other Disney animated films, the film would be theatrically re-released multiple times. The film was first re-released on June 9, 1978, on a double-bill with Disney's live action comedy The Cat From Outer Space. Check out the TV spot for this release.

The second re-release followed on July 27, 1984. It was a small success, grossing $23 million domestically.

The film received its last theatrical re-release on July 13, 1990. It grossed $44 million domestically.

Right before the 1990 re-release, characters from the film became the main stars of the Disney Afternoon television series TaleSpin. The series premiered on May 5, 1990 and ran until August 8, 1991 with a total of 65 episodes, not making it past Disney's infamous 65-episode limit. Not to mention, it had a rather catchy theme song, much like the theme songs for DuckTales and Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers.

On May 3, 1991, the film debuted on home video in the Walt Disney Classics line. Over 10 million units were sold, another huge success for Walt Disney Home Video. The video release went back in the vault the year after, but the LaserDisc version was issued in 1992. The film hit home video in the UK in 1993, part the UK equivalent of the Walt Disney Classics line. Around the same time, Disney revisited Kipling's story, which resulted in a live action take on the classic. Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book came out on Christmas Day in 1994. It wasn't much of a success.

The 1994 live action film

The Jungle Book was re-released on home video on October 14, 1997 as a part of the Walt Disney Masterpiece Collection for its 30th Anniversary. The film debuted on DVD on December 7, 1999 as a part of the Limited Issue series. Like the other titles in that series, it was a bare bones disc with a bad transfer of the film. In 2003, a lousy sequel was released, which really should've been a direct-to-video product, or better yet... It shouldn't have been made. It was a critical and commercial dud.

The film was given the 2-Disc set treatment on October 2, 2007 in the Platinum Edition series for the film's 40th Anniversary. Unfortunately, the aspect ratio was all wrong, the sound quality was questionable and the wrong Buena Vista logo was used for the film's opening. At least the bare bones DVD from 1999 had it in the correct aspect ration and used the correct opening logo.

We don't know when this film will hit Blu-ray (which will be a Diamond Edition), but here's hoping that Disney corrects the problems present on the Platinum Edition DVD while keeping all of the great bonus features. I'd say the Diamond Edition will come out sometime in 2014, since Aladdin is coming in spring 2013 and The Little Mermaid should be a fall 2013 release since the 3D re-release is coming in September 2013. It'll be like The Lion King all over again. So, that means we'll probably get The Jungle Book sometime after Mermaid, or maybe it won't come after Mermaid.

In conclusion, The Jungle Book is one of Disney's more entertaining films that has a lot of heart. It was a huge success for the Disney studios and is still a popular film to this day.

Film Grade: B-

Next Up: An animated film that's a cult classic in many ways, an animated film that has a lot of rotoscoping in it, and a hard rocking soundtrack... Can you guess what it is? Find out in the next episode of "Classic Animation Theater"!

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