20 May 2012

Disney Daze: Week 19: The Jungle Book

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

On the fifteenth of December 1966, Walter Elias Disney passed away from lung cancer. Ten months later the last animated feature that he had a hand in shaping, The Jungle Book, was released. The film would signal the end of one of the most influential artistic lives of the twentieth century. From his scrappy beginnings scribbling out drawings in a garage to almost single-handedly running a huge multimedia empire (before such a phrase existed) Walt Disney had changed the face of popular entertainment forever. The Jungle Book would be his last personal statement in the field that he got his start, the dreamlike world of animation. And while the film would not reach the artistic heights of say, Dumbo or Bambi, The Jungle Book would prove to be a worthwhile bookend to a phenomenal career.

For the last decade of his life, Walt had all but abandoned the animation department. His heart lay elsewhere, namely the sleepy city of Anaheim where Disneyland, his burgeoning "theme park" (hitherto also an unknown term) was providing tactical, three-dimensional joys to the world. In Walt's mind, Disneyland was a project that he never had to stop improving. At a certain point, the films needed to be edited and released, whereas the park could be rebuilt year after year. The films produced following Disneyland's opening show a noticeable drop in quality (Sleeping Beauty excepted since it had begun production a full five years before the park broke ground). The animation department had been drastically cut and more importantly Walt was nowhere to be seen. After the failure of the The Sword in the Stone at the box office, Walt decided he needed to be more involved in the story department and he threw himself completely into the development of The Jungle Book.

The adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli stories was originally suggested by Bill Peet and with Walt's approval he began a treatment of the film, as he had on both Sword and One Hundred and One Dalmatians. However Walt was not pleased with Peet's efforts and the two argued bitterly over the tone of the film, which Peet wanted to be darker. Walt prevailed and shortly thereafter Peet left the production and the studio all together. Walt assembled a new writing team, led by Larry Clemmons, who received a copy of Kipling's book with Walt's implicit instruction not to read it. Walt found himself once again wrapped up in the story development, acting out characters for the animators and intricately describing scenes down to the tiniest detail. It was a return to the role he played so well in the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which had been announced to the assembled studio staff with the boss acting out the entire film for two full hours.

The film begins with the infant Mowgli washed up on the shores of the jungle in a broken skiff, his parents presumably dead in the water. He is taken to be raised by a family of wolves by the panther Bagheera who throughout the film acts as Mowgli's guardian angel, rushing to the boy's aid at the slightest sign of danger. When the boy is around ten years old, word spreads through the jungle that the sinister tiger Shere Khan has returned and it is determined that Mowgli must return to civilization for his safety, as Khan hates humans and will surely kill Mowgli if given the chance. The film follows Bagheera as he tries to take the reluctant child back to mankind. Along the way Mowgli meets a series of animals whom he mimics, learns life lessons from, and is ultimately betrayed by. 

The animals in the film are voiced by one of the finest casts Walt Disney ever assembled. The great George Sanders plays the evil Shere Khan with a mellifluous malevolence while the gentle Sterling Holloway successfully plays against type as the insidious snake Kaa. But Phil Harris undoubtably steals the picture as the carefree bear Baloo, whose infectious take on life is summed up in the fantastic tune "The Bare Necessities". The song was written Terry Gilkyson, who was the original songwriter for the film and ultimately wrote a handful of numbers, all of which were scrapped save "Necessities" when Bill Peet left the picture and the story was lightened up. The rest of the soundtrack was composed by the stalwart George Bruns, who wrote some really interesting instrumental pieces (check out the jazzy garage rock number playing beneath the third act meet-up with the vultures), and the Sherman Brothers, who contribute several songs here, all of which are considerably stronger than their Sword in the Stone numbers. The highlights include Kaa's hypnotic lullaby "Trust in Me" and the swinging tour-de-force "I Wan'na Be Like You" sung by the great Louis Prima as the orangutan King Louie.

The monkey sequence featuring "I Wan'na Be Like You" is easily the best scene in the film. It is the point when all of the successful elements of the picture are firing at once. The animation is lively and inventive, matching the infectious song's upbeat style. The scene moves the plot forward, introducing the idea of the animals' obsession with "man's red fire", which separates Mowgli from his jungle brethren and will play a pivotal part in the finale. And the scene is incredibly funny. In fact, The Jungle Book might be the funniest of all Disney features. Most of the laughs come from Baloo and his laid-back demeanor. Occasionally his antics remind one of the great clown Goofy, and in the monkey sequence his delirious desire for a good beat sends him off in a coconut mask and hula skirt, impersonating an ape to get closer to the captured Mowgli.   

Despite all of its strengths, The Jungle Book is far from a perfect film. The third act drags when Mowgli meets the Beatle-esque vultures in a barren part of the jungle. The scene possesses a complete lack of momentum, slowing the film to a solid halt that is only barely saved when Shere Khan arrives and a climactic battle is waged between him and Baloo. By this point we have seen our lion's share of animals (lions excepted) and the exchange between Mowgli and the vultures feels all too repetitive, a bit like The Sword in the Stone in that regard. Another setback in the film is a habit of recycling animation. Two egregious examples come to mind. There is a parade of elephants who pop up occasionally in the film, and each time we see the same piece of animation as they march into the frame. The more obvious bit is a gag where Kaa the snake becomes tied in a knot and when he unties himself his body becomes jagged and limps away. The piece is repeated shot-for-shot later in the film for no apparent reason. It was barely funny the first time and by the second it simply takes one out of the picture.

The Jungle Book was a rousing success at the box office thanks to its hit soundtrack and nostalgia for the company's guiding force, who had left the world less than a year before. After Walt's death, the animation department would become adrift, increasingly stifled under a desire to determine what exactly Walt would have done on current productions. Unfortunately artistic intuition cannot be taught and the following decade's slate of films would be seen as pale imitations of works the studio had released years before. The Jungle Book itself would be the source of one such revision, sharing animation, actors, and traits with the company's adaptation of Robin Hood. "I Wan'na Be Like You" indeed.

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