The Jungle Book (1967)

I never set out to be a Disney hipster on purpose.  Yes, I like Song of the South, but if I were a true Disney hipster, I’d unironically prefer movies like The Black Cauldron or Home on the Range or Treasure Planet.  I have nothing against the greats like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t love them because everyone already does.  I mean, everyone already loves them, so how dull and uninspiring is it if I, like hundreds of others, claim Beauty and the Beast is my favorite?  And how did I come to claim this B-lister as my favorite?

I didn’t watch it until I was a teenager, so it’s not like it’s a childhood favorite of mine.  Hypnosis freaked me out as a kid, so the scenes with Kaa should have been a deterrent.  The only reason I can recall why I started to get interested in it at all was buying the CD soundtrack.  I’d heard all six of the film’s songs on my Classic Disney cassettes, but the CD also included the score, two reprises, an interview with the Sherman brothers, two songs from the More Jungle Book album, and two deleted songs.  My thirst for Disney trivia deepened as I discovered more and more about this movie.  Even though it’s typically regarded as “The last film Walt was involved with”.  But does it deserve better than that?

Just join me and jam with the jungle juvenile and his genuinely jumpin’ journey!

The Plot: The black panther Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot) discovers an orphaned man-cub and leaves him with a nearby wolfpack to be raised.  Ten years later, the boy, Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman) is being forced out, as the feared tiger Shere Khan (George Sanders) is returning to their part of the jungle, and will kill the man-cub and anyone who dares to protect him.  Bagheera volunteers to escort the boy to a man-village to keep him safe.  However, there’s just one problem: Mowgli doesn’t want to leave the jungle.  Thus, in spite of Bagheera’s best efforts, the jungle repeatedly proves itself to the boy it’s just as dangerous as it is fun.

There’s of course, the self-righteous and aloof Colonel Hathi (J. Pat O’Malley) and his jungle patrol of elephants, the hypnotic and hungry python Kaa (My Hero Sterling Holloway), a dancing orangutan looking for the secret of fire, King Louie (Louis Prima), a band of musical British vultures, and of course, Baloo (Phil Harris), a bear who basically invented Hakuna Matata.  Can Mowgli steer clear of danger or will he be forced to seek refuge with his own kind?

How’s the writing?: Rudyard Kipling’s novel of the same name was a series of disjointed vignettes, with several chronicling the adventures of Mowgli and his friends.  This allowed flexibility for the writing staff to put together a simple story with episodic elements, not unlike Alice in Wonderland.  In fact, Walt even assured them to not worry about the “icky-sticky story stuff” and encouraged them to make it fun.  As far as I’m concerned, that was definitely the right move.

You could tell me the greatest story ever written: perfectly paced, perfect action, perfect three-act structure, perfect continuity…but if it’s being told with boring characters, good luck trying to get me interested.  The Jungle Book, much like the aforementioned Alice in Wonderland and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, has a bare thread of a plot: little more than hooks on a wall to hang the characters on.  Sometimes the plot does need to stall for a moment while we spend time with these characters we enjoy spending time with.  Does Hathi provide anything substantial to the plot?  what was the point of spending so much time singing and dancing with King Louie?  Did the vultures really do much to help Mowgli?  Did Kaa really need two separate scenes?  And after all that happened to show Mowgli just how perilous the jungle could be, he couldn’t be bothered to grow or develop or learn from everything?  The answer is no, none of it was “necessary”, per se.  It was an adventure with friends.  Like, you don’t need a reason to hang out with your friends, you do it because they’re your friends and you enjoy spending time with them.

So because of that, we get through dialogue, musical numbers, and all sorts of great action scenes where we get the full brunt of just how entertaining these characters really are.  As a result, we get a story only strong enough to let us spend time with a variety of oddball characters and regale in their interactions.

Does it give the feels?: Because The Jungle Book is often regarded as wild, raucous musical adventure, little light is shed on the emotional aspect.  In that Sherman brothers interview on that CD I mentioned, even Richard Sherman admitted the movie “sorta dies at the end”.  It definitely is cute and kinda wholesome, as Mowgli goes from wanting to pal around with his friends to getting distracted by the little girl (Named Shanti in the 2002 sequel) and following her into the village, signifying the onset of adulthood.  Her song, “My Own Home” is a lovely melody, but its lyrics are fairly unremarkable.

No, if you’re looking for the emotional hook, it’s the relationship between Mowgli and Baloo.  You got an impetuous child and a lazy ne’er-do-well coming together and appreciating the fun they bring together.  It would be a common trope as time went on, that the child would learn to grow up and the man-child would learn to take on more responsibility, but there’s something special about a big, affable friend like Baloo.  Christopher Robin can’t float on top of Pooh in a river, that’s for sure!

Who makes it worth it?: Shere Khan is easily one of my favorite Disney villains.  Rational, haughty, and quietly dangerous, Shere Khan loves casually dropping hints about his renowned capabilities, like a mafia crime boss.  He’s often compared to Scar, which is hardly fair.  Scar was a manipulator, knowing full well what he lacked in muscle he made up for by being clever.  While Shere Khan isn’t dumb by any stretch, be clearly values his innate physical prowess and tries to cloak it in a proud, dignified demeanor, as if his ruthlessness and his demeanor gives him permission to be as cutthroat as he desires.

Kaa has always been a fan favorite.  Ideally, Kaa could be the most feared threat in the jungle as both a predator and due to his hypnotic abilities, but aside from being a touch narcissistic and clumsy, Kaa gets a little bit drunk on his own power and ends up playing with his food and gloating over it before getting around to eating it.  Like Br’er Fox, he’d have accomplished his goal by now if only he’d set his ego aside and eat him already.  But as such, Kaa has a bit of a woobie appeal, getting foiled by distractions, and eventually, getting thrown out the trees by his own body weight. 

Of course, I gotta give a shoutout to my ursine brother from another bruin, Baloo.  He’s so chill, so funny, I would love a lazy afternoon of floating on a river, gorging myself on food, dancing to the bare necessities.  Even when times aren’t so good, watching Baloo go full protector mode is a treat.  He may not be as threatening as Elliott the dragon, but he’d go down swinging if he felt you were in danger, be it monkeys or tigers.  Gotta respect that.

Best quality provided: Andreas Deja is one of Disney’s greatest animators.  He was the supervising animator for characters like Scar, Jafar, Gaston, Hercules, Lilo, and Mama Odie.  The Jungle Book was one of the first movies he ever saw growing up in Germany and it stuck with him as his biggest career influences.  As an animator, Deja’s job is to draw how a character moves every 24 frames a second.  Where do their hands go?  Should they tilt their head this way?  Maybe they should fidget with their coat?  How can you convey them thinking?  Animation is very nuanced and if you ever tried to act natural and you over thought your every micro gesture, just imagine having to draw it out.  To this day, Deja claims The Jungle Book has some of the finest character animation in the entire Disney canon. And he’s definitely onto something.

For starters, most of the characters don’t have hands, and can’t hold props, so everything has to be conveyed through body language, facial expressions, and voice.  In lesser hands, this movie would have been dull as dirt, but instead, their personalities radiate off the screen. Ollie Johnston agonized over the right actions for Baloo as he struggled with his guilt.  Milt Kahl’s layered Shere Khan with so much cool arrogance in every head tilt and smirk.  Kaa was given crazy amounts of leeway considering he doesn’t even have arms, and yet was still able to communicate just as clearly as Mowgli.

And thanks to the strong vocal cast of Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima, Sterling Holloway, George Sanders, and J. Pat O’Malley, we have an array of wildly colorful and vivid characters that make this film a treat.

What could have been improved: While I’m happy to profess this movie is my favorite out of the WDAS canon, I fully acknowledge this movie has some flaws that certainly hinder it.  Even though I truly appreciate most of Favreau’s efforts in his 2015 reboot.

First and foremost is Mowgli himself.  I don’t hate the kid, but I am frustrated that the central character lacks a lot of serious potential.  The plot hinges on Mowgli’s refusal to return to the human world and the exhilaration he finds every time he meets a new animal.  But why not more than that?  Did he miss his wolf family?  If so, why didn’t he express it?  Heck, Bagheera seems to have taken Mowgli off to the Man-Village without letting him even saying goodbye, and the kid is at most, confused.  For a kid who was raised ten years in the subtropical rainforest, he seems decidedly not very lupine in demeanor, in fact, he seems to seriously lack ANY survival skills.  How is it this kid has never encountered any of the animals in – again – the entire decade of growing up with the wolves?  After all, Bagheera seems to know everyone.  And when Baloo betrays Mowgli and he wanders around aimlessly, why couldn’t we have a more introspective moment?  Yeah, I get Mowgli’s not terribly adept at reflection as most ten-year-olds are, but it might have been beneficial to show Mowgli in a more contemplative mood, lending some weight to the scene instead of – let’s be honest – a rather dull/pointless scene of him throwing rocks at a waterfall and walking along a log.

Furthermore, Mowgli doesn’t learn anything.  Bagheera was perpetually frustrated that Mowgli could not understand just how life-threatening jungle life is.  Over and over again, the kid’s life was in danger, and Mowgli just kept enjoying himself, as if it were all a game.  Ideally, his encounter with Shere Khan – a killer stronger than a pack of wolves, a panther, a bear, and even Kaa – should have made Mowgli realize just how badly outmatched he was.  Instead, Mowgli gets his scrawny butt saved by Baloo and a flock of buzzards.  Afterwards, he’s so happy his papa bear’s alive again it doesn’t even register just what could have happened.  And after soundly defeating the tiger and making the jungle safe for himself again…suddenly he gets his head spun by seeing a girl.  A fairly typical plot point, to show child growing into adulthood by way of falling in love.  But it renders the journey pointless.

I guess what saves it from being truly disappointing is the movie is the same reason why the narrative is so thin. While I don’t think greater emotional depth would have been a bad thing, it might have given the movie some tonal whiplash. It definitely helped the movie keep its freewheeling, light-hearted tone it became known for.

Because the characters are so entertaining, it’s a shame we never got to see Rocky the rhino. In an earlier draft, the vultures would manipulate Mowgli into antagonizing a near-sighted and dim-witted rhinoceros. But after evading Rocky’s charges, the vultures decree Mowgli an honorary vulture, which, like in the movie, prompt the birds (Plus Rocky) to sing “That’s What Friends are For”, though whether he would have played a role in battling Shere Khan is uncertain. Walt himself suggested Rocky be dropped since there were too many ugly characters between him, the monkeys, and the vultures. But at least Favreau gave a nod to the character in the 2015 reboot.

Verdict: I know the last section was pretty long and involved, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s my favorite animated Disney film.

It’s just so…fun. Unapologetically fun. Unlike The Three Caballeros, where it’s a nonstop party, The Jungle Book is just as content taking a nap or floating down a river as it is having wild dance parties. And best of all, each scene contains at least one robust and fun character that makes it so enjoyable (Except for Mowgli). No regrets, just a complete nine paw paws out of ten.

That’s some good old bare necessities.

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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