***/**** Image C+ Sound A- Extras A
story by Larry Clemmons, Ralph Wright, Ken Anderson, Vance Gerry, inspired by the Rudyard Kipling "Mowgli" stories
directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. The Jungle Book receives only two passing mentions in Neal Gabler's mammoth biography of Walt Disney, even though it has the distinction of being the last animated film Disney lived to produce and ended his career in a commercial triumph to bookend the early success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Gabler's brevity on the subject suggests that The Jungle Book was of little consequence to Disney, but there are clues to the contrary between the lines, such as when Gabler writes tantalizingly about Walt's opinion that early drafts of the script were too "sober." Indeed, he was personally invested in the project to the point of choosing it over his relationship with long-time story man Bill Peet, who'd brought Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli stories to Disney's attention in the first place. Peet's adaptation was, as Walt saw it, beset by its fidelity to Kipling, and he solidified his vision for lighter-hearted fare by hiring radio icon Phil Harris, whose husky, hearty voice would become synonymous with Disney animation in those posthumous years. The energy and levity Harris brought to the minor character of Baloo the Bear led to a reconceiving of the narrative so that it pivoted, in Gabler's words, on the Falstaff/Prince Hal dynamic between Baloo and child hero Mowgli.
For all its striving at breeziness, The Jungle Book definitely has an air of prestige that the pictures immediately flanking it--1963's The Sword in the Stone and 1970's The Aristocats--do not, if by virtue of the celebrity casting (Harris, George Sanders); a comparatively lavish musical presence; and a reduced use of Xerography, the time- and cost-shearing process by which animators' rough drawings are photocopied directly onto cels rather than neatly retraced by hand. The character animation is nonpareil in communicating personality, emotion, and mass, and the painterly backgrounds were a shining return to classical form following experiments in Modernism and medieval design--though the innate brooding of Kipling's anthology can't help but assert itself in the faithfully-rendered tropical wastelands, despite Walt's best efforts to tamp it out. These included entreating Peet's successors to bypass the novel, perhaps with the example of 1951's coldly faithful Alice in Wonderland weighing heavily on his mind.
To that end, Kipling's adventure serial and occasional colonialist screed mutated into a musical comedy. When Baloo and Bagheera the panther (Sebastian Cabot)--self-appointed protectors of "man cub" Mowgli--set out to rescue Mowgli from his monkey abductors, they're now such a benign threat, zany instead of mad, that our heroes end up swatting flies with Buicks, looking oddly meanspirited as they bring about the destruction of King Louie's (Louis Prima) monkey palace. Yet the sequence itself is absolutely electrified by bebop legends Harris and Prima trying to scat-sing each other into the next ZIP code; if the movie falters, it's in Disney's thinking he can mix and match this adrenalized, performance-based humour with the quainter comic stylings he was used to. Scenes of elephant troop leader Hathi (J. Pat O'Malley)--transformed from a patient, pragmatic sort willing to help Mowgli avenge a friend by, yes, stomping a village to smithereens into a scatterbrained, Colonel Blimp type--leading marches feel downright elderly in their interminable clowning. It's a mixed blessing that these lesser vignettes tend to be ephemeral in the grand scheme.
A mild sense of dread does foment over the course of The Jungle Book, as Mowgli advances, oblivious, towards a confrontation with the deadly tiger Shere Khan, who intends to eat the boy before Mowgli can develop into that natural predator of all animals: Man. Talked up long before he appears, Shere Khan is a villain who lives up to the hype, like a feline Harry Lime. The implied ferocity in his sinewy movements, coupled with the honey-throated, bemused vocal stylings of the inimitable Sanders, make for a charismatic foil who appears to have the physical and intellectual advantage on Team Mowgli, which by the climax includes four vultures styled after The Beatles but given to performing in the barbershop-quartet style so as not to "date" the film with the temporary fad of rock 'n' roll. (Again, Disney and his goddamn genteelness.) Still, the threat of Shere Khan is so drowned out by slapstick and song that once he rears his head, it's less alarming than it is memory-jogging. And where Kipling dispatches him with finality--Mowgli skins him!--Disney shows him the cruel mercy of a tail on fire. Baloo then temporarily keels over from the effort of wrestling a tiger in the type of psych-out demise perfected by Lady and the Tramp (the secret ingredient is rain), as if the promise of resurrection is a healthier seed to plant in a child's mind than a vision of ultimate loss.
The entire temperature of The Jungle Book changes in its final minutes, however, I think even more than by design. Mowgli is lured eerily to the human village by the literal siren song of a little girl fetching water. The words haven't aged well: the girl is letting us know that she is doing as generations of women have done and what she will teach her own daughter to do, i.e., live a life of domestic servitude. Regardless, maybe there's hope for this one: Mowgli carries her water when she accidentally-on-purpose drops it. She scrunches her nose like Zelda Gilroy from "Dobie Gillis" and he reflexively does it back. He's being alpha-dogged, as usual: If The Jungle Book has taught us anything, it's that Mowgli is teachable, adaptable, cooperative. Walt Disney's own grandniece recently cast aspersions on the picture, saying "he made a film about how you should stay 'with your own kind' at the height of the fight over segregation," but I don't share her pessimism, and would point out that Shere Khan loses because he sees Mowgli as an Other in a way the other denizens of the jungle, in their efforts to claim the "man cub" as one of their own, do not. The next adventure for Mowgli--let's pretend the hideous The Jungle Book 2 didn't happen--might be developing empathy for women.
Nevertheless, this powerful epilogue would be bittersweet under any circumstances. It was Disney and Peet's innovation to retool Kipling's non-linear narrative so that it arced from jungle to civilization, indicating Mowgli's coming of age. That's why the film is allowed to go sombre in its closing moments--it signals a maturity. But if we think of Mowgli as an avatar for Disney, the outcome seems considerably more tragic. Here's a man who cultivated a career--and an empire--from "childish" pursuits, whose final statement is, effectively, "playtime is over." Walt didn't know he was dying when he started The Jungle Book, but let's face it, a lot of what he did late in life--the obsessive theme-park building and multimedia strategies, the abandonment of an integrity that had led him to kill Bambi's mom and jail Dumbo's--was in denial, nay, defiance of death, and in Mowgli's fate, it's hard not to detect a certain mortal fatigue. "I don't know fellas, I guess I'm getting too old for animation," Gabler quotes Disney as saying at one of the last production meetings.
In other words, Mowgli more or less dies at the end of the picture--a notion forwarded by the dirge-like melody of the girl's music and tacitly embraced by the Shane dynamics of the scene, with Baloo gently calling "Come back, come back" as Mowgli is beckoned towards the light. Disappearing behind a corner after throwing his friends one last fatalistic shrug of the shoulders, he has quit denying his humanity and, thus, his mortality. For the filmmakers, who completed The Jungle Book in Walt's absence, it must have felt cathartic, especially animating the other side of the conversation where Baloo and Bagheera, united in their sudden aloneness, walk off together into the sunset. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The first few Disney cartoons to hit Blu-ray--Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia--were polished to an opening-day gleam that bordered on miraculous. Sadly, Disney now uses a lazy cocktail of DVNR and digital dust-busting to whip these movies into shape for HiDef, smoothing perfections and imperfections alike out of the image to arrive at a soft, mealy appearance that continues with The Jungle Book, arguably the studio's most disappointing Diamond Edition release to date. The 1.75:1, 1080p transfer is as textureless as it is grainless, exacerbating the blurriness of a handful of shots where the camera focus goes hinky while diminishing that Blakeian infernal method that gives hand-drawn animation its soul. It requires a delicate touch to denoise a photograph of a painting without taking the brush strokes out, too, and this was done with the same heavy hand that led to particles of fairy dust and other minute details vanishing from Cinderella. Fluctuations in paint consistency are reduced to a strobing effect and colours, for the record, rarely pop, with whites trending towards pink. The presentation is better-defined than an upconvert (an A/B comparison with the bundled DVD proves this), but it's built to be projected or displayed on mobile devices--the in-between sizes expose its technical compromises.
The attendant 7.1 DTS-HD MA track adds a nice, bassy plonk to the percussive music that makes up for the odd rerecorded effect. Purists may want to stick with the mono audio (lossy, alas, in DD 2.0), though with the music originally mixed in stereo and with the movie looking the way it does on Blu-ray, that seems like an empty gesture. A secondary audio program teams songwriter Richard M. Sherman, Bruce Reitherman (son of director Wolfgang "Woolie" Reitherman, as well as the voice of Mowgli), and Katzenberg-era Disney animator/The Jungle Book superfan Andreas Deja for a feature-length commentary that also incorporates archival interviews with animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston plus screenwriter Larry Clemmons. Although the remaining supplements do a good job of distilling the salient points of this yakker, there are revelations here not repeated elsewhere, such as the fact that the waterfall seen in the film is live-action footage of Angel Falls, meticulously integrated frame-by-frame so as not to slip out of register. Additionally, Sherman points out details overlooked elsewhere: Everyone realizes that the vultures are thinly-veiled caricatures of The Beatles, for example, but time has rendered less recognizable the sub-homage their dialogue pays to 1955 Best Picture winner Marty.
New-to-Blu extras begin with "Music, Memories & Mowgli" (10 mins., HD), a roundtable reminiscence with the late Diane Disney Miller, story supervisor Floyd Norman, and composer Robert Sherman. Their wistful if unspontaneous conversation is in many ways a consolidation of the "Classic DVD Bonus Features," with topics including the departure of Bill Peet and, naturally, the death of Walt. A brief interlude in which they leave their post at the Disney Family Museum to check out Walt Peregoy's colour guides for the film is unfortunately too brief to be anything but inexplicable.
In "Alternate Ending - Mowgli and the Hunter" (9 mins., HD), storyboard artist Raymond Persi reconstructs an ending that never made it past the treatment stage, for good reason. Shaggy-doggish and excessive, it sees Mowgli leaving the human village again to prove a point to the awful Buldeo (one of the book's many jettisoned characters), who has spread the lie that he himself killed Shere Khan. The dispensing of this shows real wisdom on the part of the filmmakers, although Persi's 'boards are nice.
"I Wan'na Be Like You: Hangin' Out at Disney Animal Kingdom" (18 mins., HD) finds two ethnically-contrasted teens, Blake (a boy) and "G" (a girl), touring the titular park in a state of disingenuous rapture while the editor sets Adobe After Effects to "Poochie." No two human beings have ever been as excited by anything as G and Blake are to get nametags, and that's just the start of their wild ride with Ranger Matt. "We had to get up at six in the morning, but it was all worth it to go to the Animal Nutrition Centre!" says G, who has quite possibly been sipping from the West Virginia water supply. I learned a surprising lot, though, while waiting in vain for the children to be eaten. Lastly (not counting the "Bear-e-oke" sing-along feature), "@DisneyAnimation: Sparking Creativity" (9 mins., HD) pays tribute to the Spark program currently in effect at Disney, whereby anyone working there can pitch an idea for a technique, a technology, a story...you name it. Some neat stuff's come out of these regular assemblies, like a MoCap magic wand for fairy dust that apparently aided the makers of Frozen. Alas, Frozen's disc is probably the rightful home for this featurette.
The rest of the BD's bonus features first appeared on the 2007 Platinum Edition DVD and are presented here in 4:3 letterbox SD video:
"The Bare Necessities: The Making of The Jungle Book" (45 mins.)
This five-part retrospective documentary treats Peet sympathetically as a man who was, prior to his dismissal, doing the job of forty people, since Disney had scaled back the animation department to a skeleton crew. The Jungle Book's production team is extensively profiled and, in the process, most conceivable questions are satisfactorily addressed. One notable exception: I understand why songwriter Terry Gilkyson was fired (his compositions were too dark, "The Bare Necessities" notwithstanding), but why, with the Shermans right there at the ready, was he hired?
"Deleted Scene - The Lost Character: Rocky the Rhino" (7 mins.)
Reconstructed from photostats, this sequence featuring a Mr. Magoo-like rhinoceros to be voiced by Frank Fontaine. No real explanation is provided for its deletion, other than the self-evident one of it not being very good.
"Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston Discuss Character Animation" (4 mins.)
I love listening to these guys, the two best-known of Disney's "Nine Old Men" and co-authors of the 1981 animation bible Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life. Friends who worked side by side for years, they were responsible on The Jungle Book for, principally and fittingly, BFFs Baloo and Mowgli. Together while going through drawings for the scene of Baloo teaching Mowgli how to box they drop knowledge like it's hot.
"Mowgli's Return to the Wild" (5 mins.)
Bruce Reitherman speculates on the influence his father's career had on his decision to become a wildlife cameraman and compares their not-disparate careers spent trying to capture the essence of animals on film. He pulls out a sheet of paper with his father's "pearls of wisdom" for making a good movie, and generously reads it aloud.
"The Lure of The Jungle Book" (9 mins.)
Animation historian John Canemaker reflects on The Jungle Book's status as a primary influence on today's animators. The proof is in the pudding, as the esteemed likes of Brad Bird and Glen Keane chime in to credit the movie's seminal role in their lives. "It really boasts, possibly, the best character animation the studio ever did," says Disney animator and Looney Tunes scholar Eric Goldberg, who remembers seeing it six times at the cinema. John Lounsbery's animation of the elephants is singled out a couple of times; Keane was such a fan that when he started working at the studio, he adopted the same thick pencils Lounsbery used and took to drawing similarly grand characters, like Beast from Beauty and the Beast.
"Disney's Kipling: Walt's Magic Touch on a Literary Classic" (15 mins.)
When Peet was fired from The Jungle Book, he left the studio and took with him all his developmental work on the project, which was rediscovered in his home four decades later. Until that happened, doing as this piece does--tracing the evolution from Peet's photostats and treatment to The Jungle Book as we know it--was next to impossible. The piece explicates the great gulf between Peet's one-dimensional characters and Disney's "more richly-personified" versions.
"I Wan'na Be Like You" by the Jonas Brothers constitutes the blessedly brief but not brief enough "Music & More" section. Rounding out the platter is a Disney Pedia segment, "Junglemania!" (14 mins.), that offers cursory overviews of the animals depicted in The Jungle Book but, carelessly, doesn't always feature India in the stock footage. "Exciting previews" for Sleeping Beauty, Muppets Most Wanted, and Frozen cue up on startup; DVD and downloadable copies of the film finish off the package proper. For more The Jungle Book framegrabs, visit our Tumblr.