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

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

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…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

One day you will speak and the jungle will listen.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)
(SPOILERS) The unloved and neglected Jungle Book movie that wasn't Disney’s, Jungle Book: Origins was originally pegged for a 2016 release, before being pushed to last year, then this, and then offloaded by Warner Bros onto Netflix. During which time the title changed to Mowgli: Tales from the Jungle Book, then Mowgli, and finally Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. The assumption is usually that the loser out of vying projects – and going from competing with a near $1bn grossing box office titan to effectively straight-to-video is the definition of a loser – is by its nature inferior, but Andy Serkis' movie is a much more interesting, nuanced affair than the Disney flick, which tried to serve too many masters and floundered with a finale that saw Mowgli celebrated for scorching the jungle. And yes, it’s darker too. But not grimdarker.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

A steed is not praised for its might, but for its thoroughbred qualities.

The Avengers Season 3 Ranked - Worst to Best
Season Three is where The Avengers settles into its best-known form – okay, The Grandeur that was Rome aside, there’s nothing really pushing it towards the eccentric heights it would reach in the Rigg era – in no small part due to the permanent partnering of Honor Blackman with Patrick Macnee. It may not be as polished as the subsequent incarnations, but it has the appeal of actively exploring its boundaries, and probably edges out Season Five in the rankings, which rather started to believe its own hype.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Something something trident.

Aquaman (2018)
(SPOILERS) If Aquaman has a problem – although it actually has two – it’s the problem of the bloated blockbuster. There's just too much of it. And the more-more-more element eventual becomes wearing, even when most of that more-more-more is, on a scene-by-scene basis, terrifically executed. If there's one thing this movie proves above all else, it's that you can let director James Wan loose in any given sandpit and he’ll make an above-and-beyond castle out of it. Aquaman isn't a classic, but it isn’t for want of his trying.

Outstanding. Now, let’s bite off all the heads and pile them up in the corner.

Venom (2018)
(SPOILERS) A 29% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes can't be wrong, can it? To go by the number of one-star reviews Sony’s attempt to kick-start their own shred of the Marvel-verse has received, you’d think it was the new Battlefield Earth, or Highlander II: The Quickening. Fortunately, it's far from that level of ignominy. And while it’s also a considerable distance from showing the polish and assuredness of the official Disney movies, it nevertheless manages to establish its own crudely winning sense of identity.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …