The final Disney movie of the 1960s is dampened by tragedy. The Jungle Book is cited as the last animated movie Walt Disney would personally oversee, as well as being the last movie to have Verna Felton as a voice actress; Felton died the day before Disney himself. With that, there’s a somber attitude that permeates the movie, particularly towards the climax. I’ve never been a fan of this film, but rewatching it after a long time, I appreciate The Jungle Book as representing the passage into a new, Disney-less world of entertainment. A few of the songs are catchy, the plot is tighter than The Sword in the Stone, and George Sanders should have voiced every Disney villain, ever! I still don’t feel bad about not owning this, but I was glad to rewatch it and felt that it did pick Disney up after the disappointing Sword in the Stone.
Mowgli (voiced by Bruce Reitherman) has been raised by wolves in the jungle since birth, despite the fact that he’s a “man-cub.” When the villainous, man-hating tiger Shere Khan (voiced by George Sanders) returns to the jungle, it’s deemed best that Mowgli should return to the man-village where he’ll be safe. Benevolent panther Bagheera (voiced by Sebastian Cabot) volunteers to take Mowgli to the village, but on the way the duo get into a series of hijinks that threaten Mowgli’s life.
The Jungle Book faced an uphill battle, struggling more than any movie Disney made at that time. The studio was coming back from the failure of Sword in the Stone, and Walt advised the animators to ignore the source material for the film entirely. Of course, this led to many disagreements with lead animator Bill Peet, who would eventually leave during the middle of production after a 25 year career at the studio. The issues lie in the dark material of Rudyard Kipling’s original story (which I haven’t read), and much of Peet and original composer Terry Gilkyson’s material was deemed too dark. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Disney would die in December of 1966. Thankfully, The Jungle Book was a box-office success because it was theorized (and feared) that its failure would mark the closing of the animation unit entirely (which eventually happened a few decades later).
The movie certainly feels gloomy towards the climax, but before that its a jazzy, vibrant story that utilizes it’s jungle setting to create fun and adventure. We have a storybook opening, not unlike last week, and I find it to be a smart move on Disney’s part that they never made the storybook opening feel like something limited to fairy tales. We’ve seen it used in two films that would be defined as boy movies, and I just wish Disney remained as gender neutral now as it used to be (I use that term only with the storybook opening). We also get the opening credits over the establishing shots of the movie itself. I’m not sure if this is a move away from unique opening credit sequences entirely, but I noticed it here. I also applaud the animation which has vastly improved since 101 Dalmatians. The animators tapped into the proper way to blend the xerography with hand-drawn animation, lessening the distance that you feel between the characters and the background. I never felt as if the characters weren’t fully in the scene. The jungle setting is appropriately lush and detailed, and scenes are filled in with no sloppy extensions outside the lines. From an animation standpoint, it feels as if we’ve returned to the level of skill not seen since the 1950s films.
In terms of the story, there are definite pros and cons. The supporting cast is so grandiose that Mowgli is extremely boring by comparison. Bruce Reitherman is credited as the voice, but in the trivia I read that David Alan Bailey worked as the voice of Mowgli until he went through puberty. I have to wonder if Bailey’s voice was utilized at all because you can still tell a change in voice in the finished product. It’s not nearly as terrible as Wart in Sword in the Stone, where his voice changed every other word, but there is a definite high to low change in Mowgli’s voice throughout. In terms of character, I didn’t connect to Mowgli. He’s a petulant child who refuses to listen to the adults, and yet all the adults desperately coddle him. The main issue was I never understood why everyone wanted Mowgli for themselves. It’s stated that Shere Khan hates man, and Mowgli is the only man in the jungle (never mind that there’s a whole village of men that is never threatened by the tiger), but the rest of the characters’ motivation are never explained. Why do the monkeys want Mowgli? I just wanted one character to not fall into an obsessive love for the character, because I wasn’t feel said love. It felt like everyone was interested in the boy because he’s a human and/or a child. I guess Kaa (voiced by Sterling Holloway) would be the only character not motivated by a protection/murdering instinct; he just wants to eat. When the side characters disappear, around the climax particularly, I tuned out completely as Mowgli just wanders and kicks stuff. Disney has always had an issue creating a lead character you really like, especially when they create these larger-than-life supporting characters.
Said supporting characters are what make the movie worth watching. Bagheera is the concerned father figure and voiced by Sebastian Cabot you get the tenderness and parental concern; but the stand-out is Baloo, who I’d say is the fun uncle. Phil Harris is one of two astounding voice actors that make this film what it is. Harris would voice several other Disney characters, and we’ll see him in next week’s movie, but he is great here. He’s charismatic and jazzy, and at the end he’s the one who steps up and saves Mowgli. The scene-stealer of the entire movie though is George Sanders; I’d say he walks away with the entire film! Whoever though of him voicing the villain is a genius. Sanders’s smooth, eloquent voice makes you fear Shere Khan all the more because he’s not stupid; he’s sophisticated and cunning. I’d say he’s the best Disney villain we have, so far, and I’m shocked to type that because before I deemed Maleficient to be the best. Shere Khan takes the edge because he’s grounded in reality more than Maleficient.
The movie starts to lose focus in the third act, and thankfully Sanders saves the day as Shere Khan. Mowgli takes a detour to a desert-like area and meets a group of vultures. The movie grinds to a halt with a comic sequence that doesn’t gel with the desolate setting. It’s well-known that the vultures were supposed to be voiced by the Beatles, but the deal fell through. I wonder if the movie had progressed so far that to remove this scene, after the Beatles declined the voice work, wasn’t feasible. I ask because it could have easily been reformatted if it hadn’t been animated. Shere Khan sums up this sequence best when he says “You’re detaining my victim.” The vultures are simply a distraction while the script tries to find the plot. The actual way the script resolves the Shere Khan plot is using a deus ex machina; in this case, having a divine lightening bolt start a forest fire. The first 45 minutes is fun and adventurous, with the final thirty slowing and meandering.
The Jungle Book is worth a watch, particularly if you haven’t seen it in a while. George Sanders is the best Disney villain we’ve seen, and the first 45 minutes is a highlight of Disney’s ability to transport you to another world. I’m not quite sure how we’ll handle next week’s return to civilization.
NEXT WEEK: The 1970s bursts out with the jazzy The AristoCats
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.