Disney Silver Age #8: The Jungle Book

And so we’ve come to this: After 18 theatrical animated features, a slew of live-action features, countless shorts, TV specials, and exactly one theme park later, we arrive at the last movie Walt Disney produced before he passed away in 1966 from lung cancer. The last work of famous artists is frequently a footnote to their artistic output, a minor work whose importance is somewhat inflated just because it is the artists last work. Fortunately, The Jungle Book is not one of those works as it is in many ways the perfect capstone to Walt’s career, highlighting so much of what made him the master of animation. It is also a bittersweet movie to watch because clearly Walt still had so much left in him and one wonders what other works he would’ve produced had he lived longer. In addition the output of Disney Animation movies after The Jungle Book also show what an enormous hole he left in the company when he passed.

Fortuitously after focusing most of his energy during the previous two animated movies on Disneyland and “The Florida Project” (what would eventually become Disney World), Walt decided to take a more involved approach with The Jungle Book. Together with director Wolfgang Reitherman, he rescued the film from its original script (which was darker and much more in keeping with Rudyard Kipling’s original) and instead understood that the rich cast of characters of this movie presented an ideal opportunity for the animators, actors, and songwriters to go wild. And this is what they did.

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© 1967 – Walt Disney Studios

The story begins simply enough with Bagheera the panther (Sebastian Cabot) discovering an infant Mowgli – abandoned in an unseen tragic incident and, being deep in the Indian jungle, with little hope of survival. Bagheera takes him to a wolf pack to be raised by them and as he does so, we get to see the remarkable trick the animators have pulled off with this movie. Ever since Bambi Disney Animation has perfected the art of accurately capturing animal movements and behaviours and The Jungle Book is no different in that regard. But what is remarkable about The Jungle Book is that the animators also manage to infuse the personality of the actors into the performance. When Bagheera takes Mowgli to the wolf-pack and when he later takes Mowgli to the man-village he moves exactly like a panther would and yet his body language also clearly imparts his seriousness and almost-motherly fussiness. This will be a constant trend in the movie.

Unlike the pedestrian The Sword in the Stonethis movie also greatly benefits from its focused plot. With the arrival of the nefarious Shere Khan (George Sanders), Mowgli’s life is in peril and he must be taken back to a man-village for his own safety, whether he wants to or not. This laser-focus of a goal gives the movie its propulsive energy and the perfect canvas for the cavalcade of colourful characters in this movie. While this also arguably gives the movie a surface-level depth, it hardly matters when the movie is this much fun.

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© 1967 – Walt Disney Studios

It is not hyperbolic to say that The Jungle Book inarguably has the greatest cast of supporting characters in a Disney animated feature. There is Kaa, voiced by Winnie-the-Pooh voice actor Sterling Holloway, who makes a formidable secondary villain as a hypnotic and snivelling python. Then there is the elephant patrol led by Colonel Hathi who inhabits all the pomp and circumstance of a British officer. And a group of vultures near the end channel a certain mop-haired 60’s pop band by way of barbershop quartet. Each of these characters help infuse the movie with energy whenever they appear, keeping the pace from ever truly lagging. Of course while these side characters are interesting, it is true true heavy-lifters of this movie, namely the already-mentioned Bagheera, Baloo the bear, King Louie the orangutan, and Shere Khan the tiger who make this movie a memorable entry in the Disney canon.

When Baloo (Phil Harris) appears, he arrives so fully-formed as a character than it takes all of thirty seconds for us to believe in the instant bond he and Mowgli establish. The moment he breaks out into the iconic “Bear Necessities” we instantly know who he is – an easygoing bum with a heart of gold. As the funny man to Bagheera’s straight man the two form a classic odd-couple with each being the perfect foil to one another. But beyond being mere comedic gold, Baloo and Bagheera work so well together because both of them ultimately seek the same goal of wanting the best for Mowgli but come from two complete opposite perspectives. A heart-to-heart conversation between the two while Mowgli is asleep is compelling because they come at each other from fully formed positions, making it one of the more nuanced arguments to be found in a children’s movie.

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© 1967 – Walt Disney Studios

Meanwhile King Louie the orangutan (Louis Prima) enters into the narrative by stealing Mowgli away from the bickering couple, instantly infusing the movie with both menace and playfulness. His song “I Wanna Be Like You” is arguably the best song of the movie (in a movie filled with great songs) and the rescue mission by Baloo and Bagheera represents the high point of the movie as an ancient castle comes crashing down amidst a slew of slapstick hijinks and pratfalls.

Picking up the pieces of the narrative after this climatic scene, and the one responsible for carrying the movie home is Shere Khan. I cannot think of a more perfect casting than that of George Sanders with Shere Khan. With his usual droll eloquence he immediately establishes Shere Khan as one who is too good for the drudgery of the inhabitants and thus entirely justified in his murderous sojourn to their neck of the jungle. He commands every scene that he is in, with every word spoken with precision and menace, a dangerously coiled killing machine ready to pounce in a moment’s notice. It is a pity that his appearance comes so late in the movie, and that his defeat is ultimately so timid or else who truly would be one of the best Disney villains of all time (in fact even right now I might be talking myself into changing my list).

You may have noticed that in talking about the multitude of characters in this movie I have barely mentioned Mowgli, the boy who is at the centre of the story. This is not an oversight because Mowgli is the weakest part of this movie. Like Arthur in The Sword and the Stone, Mowgli is a strangely passive protagonist who spends almost all of the runtime of this movie acting not out of his own agency, but by reacting to his more charismatic animal companions and enemies. Even at the very end, he ends up in the man-village not out of his own volition, but because he gets seduced by a village girl (a problematic development for so many reasons). However unlike in The Sword and the Stone, you hardly notice the passivity of our hero because the plot hurries him along and the people he meets along the way are consistently entertaining.

Walt never got to see the final product, dying a year before The Jungle Book got released. In the wake of his death, the movie succeeded both critically and in the box office, undoubtedly riding the wave of nostalgia for the living legend. But away from the emotions surrounding its release, it is easy to see why it has remained beloved over the years. It is funny in a relaxed and organic way, the animation is beautiful and a reprimand against anyone who says that the Xerox method creates inferior animation by default, and the cast of characters fills the movie with Disney’s characteristic warmth and childlikeness. True, it also has no larger aspirations other than to be entertaining and giving us a good time, but surely Baloo has taught us by now that sometimes that can be all you need.

Rating: ★★★★


 

And with that, we arrive at the end of our sojourn through Disney’s Silver Age from 1950 to 1963. At first glance, it strikes me that the era is not quite as illustrious as the Golden Age. This is of course an unfair comparison. The Golden Age was an unparalleled era in which the Disney Company pushed boundaries and practically invented animation features. The first five releases of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumboand Bambi is a streak of excellence that no studio, producer, or director has even come close to replicating.

But if the Silver Age cannot match up to the excellence of the Golden Age, it can compare in the long-lasting legacy this period left behind. Almost all the animated films we have examined these past months are at least worthy additions to the canon (the only missteps being Peter Pan and The Sword in the Stone, with the former suffering from modern societal norms moving beyond its regressive views and the latter being mediocre from the get-go). But the animated films only tell half the story of Disney’s legacy during this period.

The Silver Age was when Disney Studios began to venture into live-action with classics like Treasure Island, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Old Yeller, Polyanna, The Absent Minded Professor, The Parent Trap, Swiss Family Robinson, and a little-known movie called Mary Poppins also being released in this period (an examination of Silver Age live-action movies might be called for in the future for this blog). In addition Walt Disney ventured into television with the production of Zorro and Davy Crockett being the most famous series while the anthology series Walt Disney’s Disneyland firmly placed Walt and the company firmly in the living rooms of families everywhere. And this was also the period when Walt achieved his dream of opening Disneyland in Anaheim as well as purchasing the property in Orlando that will become Disney World.

So while the animated movies of the Silver Age may not be able to match up with the Golden Age, it can be argued that the sheer volume of quality media produced during this period is more responsible for turning the Walt Disney Company from a niche animation company into the family entertainment mega-corporation it is today – and a beloved one to boot.

To say that Walt’s death brought the Silver Age to a halt is an understatement. Without Walt at the helm and with Roy Disney – Walt’s brother and the company CEO – passing away five years later, the company quickly became rudderless with several hostile takeovers attempted and the company basically limping along until Michael Eisner became the new CEO in 1984. The fact that the managed to survive that long is in part due to the social capital and goodwill they engendered during Disney’s Silver Age.

Other movies in the Silver Age:

Cinderella

Alice in Wonderland

Peter Pan

Lady and the Tramp

Sleeping Beauty

One Hundred and One Dalmatians

The Sword in the Stone

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