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Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Saturday, November 13, 2010

“Man Village? They’ll Ruin Him. They’ll Make a Man Out of Him”

This is one of the few Disney animated films my dad likes.  And let the world know, he absolutely cannot stand cartoons. I was watching The Jungle Book one day and he came in about midway through the film and sat down.  Instead of asking for the remote like he normally does, he was actually laughing at the antics of King Louie and his monkeys.  By the time the film was over, he said, “I actually like that one.  It’s fun, not serious.”
            I think my dad summed up The Jungle Book really well.  It’s a fun movie from start to finish, which contrasts very dramatically with the original source material by Rudyard Kipling; Mr. Disney literally told his story team to ignore the book completely because they were writing the film too dark (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061852/trivia).  But behind the scenes, the film wasn’t all fun; it makes me sad to watch this film because I know it was the final animated film Walt Disney personally supervised before he passed away. 
            It’s kind of morbid to look at a man’s life in terms of the movies he made.  As of this film, I’ve reviewed nineteen Disney animated films, all of which were personally touched by Mr. Disney somehow.  From his supposed “folly” in Snow White to the “jumpin” comedy of The Jungle Book, we’ve talked about them all on here.  He lived through about three quarters of The Jungle Book’s production and long enough to green light The Aristocats.  That’s twenty animated films that Walt had a hand in.  But in those twenty films, he left behind a legacy of films that people are still talking about, that children are still watching for the first time, and that are still evoking emotions in people that they didn’t know they were capable of.  Mr. Disney, the world would never be the same again because of you.
            Also leaving a bittersweet taste in my mouth is the fact that this was Verna Felton’s very last role before she passed away exactly one day before Walt did.  She voiced Winnifred, Colonol Hathi’s wife.  Her first role in a Disney film was as an elephant in Dumbo and her last role for Disney would be as elephant as well.  Sorry, if I’m kicking things off for The Jungle Book on a rather somber note.  I felt like it would be better to get the sadness out of the way so that we can focus on the exuberant joy The Jungle Book exudes.
            And exude exuberant joy it does.  I blame Phil Harris entirely for that.  You know many people name The Jungle Book as the last film in Disney’s golden age.  I prefer to think of it as the start of the Phil Harris trilogy.  He’s probably my favorite male Disney voice and this film was his introduction to Disney.  It’s such a cool voice, like the kind of guy you want to hang out with, and yet there’s so much warmth there too.

            And my God, did he kill the songs he was given.  “The Bare Necessities” was the only song from the film that received an Academy Award nomination for best song, and I don’t doubt that Harris’ amazing vocal performance had something to do with it.  “I Wan’na Be Like You” is amazing too, but that was also due in large part to the late, great Louis Prima as King Louie.  The bridge in the song where Harris and Prima are “scatting” (I had to look it up.  Scatting: improvised jazz singing in which the voice is used in imitation of an instrument) was improvised entirely by the two performers.

            But there’s more to Harris’ performance than jazzy music and fun loving attitude.  Harris managed to convey beautifully how much he cares for Mowgli when Bagheera told him about Shere Khan’s threat.  Ollie Johnston took it even further when he animated the scene.  It’s impossible to not feel the weight on Baloo’s shoulders as he walks through the jungle with Mowgli; the way his eyes shift and eyebrows furrow reveal the full gamut of emotions Baloo is going through at that moment.
            The animation of Mowgli is amazing.  He is convincingly a human child trying to live as an animal.  When he was trying to climb the tree, his movements were totally reminiscent of a child learning to climb for the first time. Even when he was simply walking through the jungle, when he walked he would kick at the ground and pick up random sticks just because; he was unmistakably a pouting child.  When he was trying to march with the elephants, though, he managed to mostly mimic their movements.  I think Bruce Reitherman did a fine job voicing a stubborn ten-year-old boy.
Of course, Bagheera completes the three.  Sebastian Cabot was his voice, and he was amazing as the under appreciated straight man of the group.  His finest moment was when they were fighting monkeys at the temple and he chose to hide as one of the ornate large cat statues.  The bit where he double checks the statue and then opens his mouth accordingly made me laugh.  I also loved his face when Kaa attempts to hypnotize him in the tree.
            Now unless you think of the Cheshire Cat as a villain, this marks the first time Sterling Holloway voiced a villan as Kaa.  In fact, that great way he read the line “delic-ssious” would be heard again in The Aristocats.  For such a gentle, relaxed voice, Holloway is a tour-de-force as Kaa.  His voice is so slimy and hypnotic that I can’t imagine anyone else in that role.
            But if you want to talk about villains, Shere Kahn earned his name “Tiger King” in The Jungle Book.  His movements are so very much tiger like, especially the multiple shifts in his shoulders as he hunts a deer (a cameo by Bambi’s mom) that for a brief moment we are not watching Disney’s nineteenth animated feature; we’re watching a tiger stalking its prey.  Of course, his chin is exaggerated, though I think this might have to do with the fact that they took some inspiration from Shere Kahn’s voice actor, George Sanders.  Sanders was perfect in creating a quiet menace; throughout the film, the audience had been hearing all of these animals say the name “Shere Kahn” with obvious fear, building up our anticipation of what kind threat the tiger is.  When we finally meet him, we know that he is dangerous and yet his voice is so calm, deep, and politely British. 

           His scene with Kaa is revealing to say the least.  Since Kaa was the first threat to Mowgli that the audience met, it’s indicative of the hierarchy of villainy to watch the two of them interacting together.  Kaa knows to fear Shere Kahn, and lies through his lisping forked tongue about the man-cub’s whereabouts.  What amazed me was the animation of Shere Kahn’s face when Kaa was describing his ailments; the fake sympathy on his face was downright comedic and totally unexpected on Shere Kahn’s part.  Of course, Shere Kahn proves his superiority by whacking Kaa’s head to the ground with just one paw when the snake tries to hypnotize him, and yet he’s still blasé in his vocal response.  It seems about the only things that get Shere Kahn to raise his voice are Mowgli and the elephant patrol.
I love Colonel Hathi.  J. Pat O’Malley was using his Colonel voice from One Hundred and One Dalmatians; in fact, if they weren’t completely different animals, I would allege that Colonel Hathi and the Colonel are related somehow, or maybe they served in the same regiment at some point.  I was laughing pretty dang hard when he was going down the line doing his inspection and when he broke his marching stick while recounting about the time he received the Victoria Cross.  The role of his son, by the way, was one of Clint Howard’s (Ron Howard’s brother) first roles.
For Lady and the Tramp and One Hundred and Dalmatians, the animation style of the animals were a blend of hyper realistic animal behavior with human traits impressed on them.  Though I think The Jungle Book lent more towards the humanized version of animals, there were some standout scenes where real animal behavior was clearly studied.  I noticed that Shere Kahn more than any other animal was made to move like a real tiger.  The filmmakers wanted to make that designation among the characters: Shere Kahn, the villain, acted more like the animal his real world counterpart is, while characters like Bagheera and Baloo always had human personalities impressed upon them, suggesting that they could be reasoned with.
Since Shere Kahn cannot be reasoned with, he almost kills Baloo.  Rather unexpectedly for this film, I started crying when everyone believed Baloo was dead.  What can I say, I’m a sucker for a scratchy kid voice asking for his father figure to get up.  Of course the tears turned to immediate laughter when Baloo began providing commentary on Bagheera’s moving and eloquent eulogy.  Best line: “I wish my mother could’ve heard this.”
Probably my favorite part of the whole movie is the scene where Mowgli decides to give the man village a try.  It’s a simple premise.  Mowgli and Baloo are still riding high from their big show down with Shere Kahn and have just affirmed that nothing will ever come between them again.  Suddenly, a lovely yet haunting melody that he has never heard before in the jungle distracts Mowgli.  He decides to investigate leaving Baloo and Bagheera alone together as they watch the scene unfold.

Ladies, if you want to master the art of seduction, study this scene like its religion.  There have been a lot of beautiful, memorable heroines to come out of Disney, but none of them can top this little girl from The Jungle Book.  The way she sings “My Own Home” (one of my favorite Disney songs, and one that I frequently sing when I’m watering my plants) while playing with her hair is so undeniably feminine.  Can you blame Mowgli for wanting a closer look?  But what could possibly drive a very stubborn boy into abandoning his friends and leaving behind the home that he had been fighting to keep all through the film?
The way she looks at him.  I swear, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more enticing “come hither” look on a woman of any age.  This little girl can’t be more than ten and she’s better at flirting than I am.  The way she “accidentally” drops her gourd of water just so Mowgli can shyly refill it for her is the work of a true master.  Especially cute is the way Mowgli half smiles, half twitches his nose whenever she looks at him. 
The thing that clinches Mowgli’s decision is when he takes one last look at the jungle and his friends, but then turns to see the little girl giving him that “come hither” look again before scrunching face in an impossibly adorable manner before smiling really big at him.  The decision was made instantly.  He smiles big and goofy like and shrugs at his friends before stepping inside the man village.  Ladies and gentlemen, Mowgli is twitterpated.

The film ends on Baloo and Bagheera walking into the sunset together, singing about “The Bare Necessities.”  With Mowgli finally where he belongs, Baloo and Bagheera manage to find a friendship in each other despite the whole ordeal.  I wonder if Bagheera and Baloo would have any idea what the future held for them.  The Jungle Book was an incredibly successful film, and had a life far beyond its original release.  For one thing, a lot of The Jungle Book characters would have roles on the Disney afternoon favorite, Tale Spin, and would even spawn a Muppet Babies like series called The Jungle Cubs.  Characters like Baloo and Louie are really popular face characters at the theme parks, usually found around Adventureland.  This is definitely an iconic film, one whose success guaranteed that the animation department would stay open after Walt’s passing.  For that, we are grateful to The Jungle Book, despite the extreme differences that came about in translating the book to film.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gone, man.  Solid gone.


  1. I love the lush backgrounds in this film, and it bothers me that the Xerox animation just doesn't sit well on top of it. The voice acting is all top notch (and would have gone one step further had they gone ahead with the Beatles for the vultures). I love Kaa and the "Trust in Me" sequence. It's interesting that only "Bare Necessities" survives of the original batch of songs before the Sherman Bros. were brought in.

    I really like the moody sort of score in this film when it's not being all jazzy. The two sounds don't always sit comfortably beside each other, but they mostly work.

    While this does begin the era of Phil Harris, it also begins the obvious use of re-used animation. Several moments are used twice in the film, and it's annoying. I mostly let it go with this film, but the next couple it just gets inexcusable.

    I also really like the end of the movie. While a few songs are lots of fun and stand out, "My Own Home" continues to dominate in my mind as years go by. Too bad Jungle Book 2 had to come along and pee all over it. UGH is that movie awful. If you've never seen it, DON'T. Tale Spin on the other hand was lots of fun, if a very bizarre show, that played with some of these characters in a fun way.

  2. The music in this film is superb!! I love "My Own Home" because of how enjoyable it is to sing. However, my favorite song has got to be "I Wanna Be Like You" because it was sung by Louie Prima. The scatting in it is so much fun.

    As for the Beatles voicing the vultures, apparently the moment John Lennon heard about it, he vetoed the idea.

    Sher Kahn is one of the coolest villains ever. His soft voice is such a contrast to his vicious nature. He just seems so together. He so calmly hits Kaa when he tries to hypnotize him that you can't help but think, "Okay, this tiger is the boss."

    I love how Shanti so obviously drops her water pitcher to get him to come with her. She knows what she's doing for sure.

    As for the Jungle Book 2. I like to pretend it doesn't exist. Seriously why taint such a good movie?

  3. What a fun, jazzy, carefree movie this was! The songs are awesome, the characters are memorable and Shere Kahn was both terrifying and natably regal at the same time. It seemed, for much of the movie, like everything that was going on was beneath Shere Kahn and not worth his notice (with the exception of the few things that really got under his skin).

    I love Bagheera; he's so incredibly patient as each and every one of his plans manages to fall through somehow (usually by Mowgli's doing), and though he's the voice of reason in the film, he plays his part without being stuffy (regardless of what Baloo might say). His eulogy for Baloo was incredible.

    Another favorite is Col. Hathi--his blustering military-man-in-an-elephant's-body reminiscing ad nauseaum on the "good old days" when he was awarded the Victoria Cross (and Winifred's mimicry of it) as he leaned on an impossibly small stick was too funny.

    While "The Bear [Bare?] Necessities" is undoubtably the most famous song to emerge from The Jungle Book, I must say the catchiest is "I Wanna Be Like You". Louis Prima was amazing!