Skip to main content

What beastly luck!

The Jungle Book
(1967)

(SPOILERS) The greatest Disney animation arrived soon after Sir Walt had pegged it, but, given its consistency with, and progression from, Wolfgang Reitherman’s previous Disney entries during the decade, its difficult to believe he wouldn’t have wholeheartedly approved. The Jungle Book is a perfect Mouse House distillation of irreverence and sentiment, of modernity and classicism, of laidback narrative cohesion and vibrant, charged set pieces. And the songs are fantastic.


So much so, Jon Favreau’s new version will include reprises of The Bare Necessities and Trust in Me, in a partially motion-captured world that seems (on the surface) entirely at odds with the goofy, knowing tone Reitherman instilled in Rudyard Kipling’s classic. That wouldn’t surprise me, as Favreau’s sense of material has been increasingly erratic since the giddy high of the first Iron Man. Andy Serkis’ competing Jungle Book: Origins (despite the abject misery of its title) will be entirely performance-captured and, while it might be the loser out of the gate, it might also be the more interesting of the two, although neither can boast writers to write home about.


The Jungle Book’s success extended a lifeline to the animation arm of the studio in the wake of Walt’s demise, but it was no salvation; animators now had to deal with mismanagement, dwindling funds and/or disinterest (which would eventually see the likes of Don Bluth depart to set up on his own) until the late ‘80s renaissance began (which is not to dismiss some of the interesting pictures produced during that period).


Disney himself had taken a very penetrating tack with the picture, nixing any “heavy stuff” (which included songs from Terry Gilkyson, his Bare Necessities excepted, and a plotline with a hunter) in favour of a practical approach favouring lighter elements over the grimmer original storyboards; the ending changed from Mowgli killing Shere Khan to the familiar one with where fire sees the tiger off, and the animators eventually came around to the Walt-prescribed bittersweet ending in which Mowgli is wooed into man’s village.


The Sword in the Stone hadn’t been the hoped for success, and Disney was determined to take any means necessary to ensure The Jungle Book would not follow that fate. Such an approach would probably be roundly condemned today (although in many quarters the current trend is to inject grit, rather than follow the original tone) but The Jungle Book becomes a complete reimagining of Kipling, not indulging in half-measures, with a distinct and consistent style and sensibility.


The Mowgli of The Jungle Book is essentially a cypher, a means to for the writers (Larry Clemmons, Ralph Wright, Ken Anderson and Vance Gerry, with Floyd Norman and Bill Peet uncredited) to transition from each colourful character and set piece to the next. It’s a rites of passage tale, except that its main character is largely unaffected until the final scene (and then barely); it’s those he impacts upon who are changed. To this end, the assembled characters are the absolute zenith of Disney design and vocals. It’s difficult to believe such an eclectic cast would be assembled for a version today. And, indeed, just look at the banal suggestions used in the new competing versions (even Bill Murray as Baloo, while perfect, is the most obvious name you could think of).


Shere Khan: I thought you were perhaps entertaining someone up there in your coils.

It’s impossible to choose the standout, although George Sanders’ delicious, superior tones have always held special affection. Shere Khan is the most wonderfully assured, self-satisfied villain, one who doesn’t even appear until after the halfway mark; like Hannibal Lector, he’s an erudite, witty psychopath, given to withering dismissiveness (“No I can’t be bothered with that. I’ve no time for that sort of nonsense” he instructs Kaa as the latter is attempting to hypnotise him) and drollery (“Now I must continue my search for the helpless little lad”).


While Sanders (was) something of a star, he had long-faded by 1967, and the lesson here is to cast for the voice, not the name. Bandleader Phil Harris became a name in animation following Baloo, with subsequent roles in The Aristocats (as the lead), and Robin Hood (as Little John). His interactions with the rest of the cast are perfection, from Sebastian Cabot’s responsible, worried Bagheera, the panther who slowly comes round to Baloo’s way of thinking (and has something of the snootiness of Khan; “Of all the silly gibberish” he comments of Baloo’s signature song) to Louis Prima’s King Louie, where the two bee-bop and scat all over to the classic I Wanna Be Like You (another entry here in the children’s movie tradition of male characters in drag, here with the added spin of a bear posing as an ape). Completing the handful of venerable lead voices is Sterling Holloway’s sibilant Kaa, a good character in the novel but Disney didn’t believe audiences would see a snake as other than villainous.


There’s also J Pat O’Malley, as Colonel Hathi, an effective spin on the pompous buffoonery of the British Empire, doubly so as his wife Winifred clearly calls the shots and Hathi is revealed as a sentimentalist beneath the bluster. Then there are the vultures, original earmarked for The Beatles until John Lennon turned the studio down (one of them is still a scouser, although their barbershop quartet is the closest the picture comes to a sign of obvious revision, altered to accommodate the Fab Four’s refusal).


Reitherman has assembled similar ingredients to the later Robin Hood (including reusing animation) but here it all comes together. There are no idle lulls because, even without a breakneck pace, every scene is captivating on its own terms, and each character interacting with each new character is like a mini-movie unto itself. There’s such a welter of evidence attesting to The Jungle Book as the high-water mark of character, songmanship, vocal performance and, perhaps most significantly, humour, it’s mystifying that the early ‘90s rebirth of Disney (immaculately produced, but rather impersonal, albeit flourishing the same kind of rigorous product control Walt exerted here) receives all the adulation.


Baloo: Come on baggy buddy, let’s get back to where we belong and get with the beat.

And, going back to that ending, it’s one of the best ever. We don’t want the adventures of this trio to stop (and, for all the lightness of touch, the fight with Khan is still delivers dramatic meat, even taking place on a darkened twilight wasteland), and Mowgli moving on represents a resonant life lesson, particularly after all that exuberant fun. Yet it isn’t all sad. Baloo and Bagheera’s bromance is complete; they have each other and, now firm friends, walk arm-in-arm in to the jungle (the latter, not really designed to walk on two legs, never fails to raise a smile).




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

If you never do anything, you never become anyone.

An Education (2009)
Carey Mulligan deserves all the attention she received for her central performance, and the depiction of the ‘60s is commendably subdued. I worried there was going to be a full-blown music montage sequence at the climax that undid all the good work, but thankfully it was fairly low key. 

Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams are especially strong in the supporting roles, and it's fortunate for credibility’s sake that that Orlando Bloom had to drop out and Dominic Cooper replaced him.
***1/2

Can you close off your feelings so you don’t get crippled by the moral ambiguity of your violent actions?

Spider-Man Worst to Best

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Everyone who had a talent for it lived happily ever after.

Empire 30:  Favourite Films of the Last 30 Years
Empire’s readers’ poll to celebrate its thirtieth birthday – a request for the ultimate thirty films of the last thirty years, one per year from 1989 – required a bit of thought, particularly since they weren’t just limiting it to your annual favourite (“These can be the films that impressed you the most, the ones that stuck with you, that brought you joy, or came to you at just the right time”). Also – since the question was asked on Twitter, although I don’t know how rigorous they’re being; does it apply to general release, or does it include first film festival showings? – they’re talking UK release dates, rather than US, calling for that extra modicum of mulling. To provide more variety, I opted to limit myself to just one film per director; otherwise, my thirty would have been top heavy with, at very least, Coen Brothers movies. So here’s they are, with runners-up and reasoning:

What, you're going to walk in there like it's the commie Disneyland or something?

Stranger Things 3 (2019)
(SPOILERS) It’s very clear by this point that Stranger Things isn’t going to serve up any surprises. It’s operating according to a strict formula, one requiring the opening of the portal to the Upside Down every season and an attendant demagorgon derivative threat to leak through, only to be stymied at the last moment by our valorous team. It’s an ‘80s sequel cycle through and through, and if you’re happy with it functioning exclusively on that level, complete with a sometimes overpowering (over)dose of nostalgia references, this latest season will likely strike you as just the ticket.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …