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

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…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Romulan ale should be illegal.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
(SPOILERS) Out of the ST:NG movies, Star Trek: Nemesis seems to provoke the most outrage among fans, the reasons mostly appearing to boil down to continuity and character work. In the case of the former, while I can appreciate the beef, I’m not enough of an aficionado to get too worked up. In the case of the latter, well, the less of the strained inter-relationships between this bunch that make it to the screen, the better (director Stuart Baird reportedly cut more than fifty minutes from the picture, most of it relating to underscoring the crew, leading to a quip by Stewart that while an Actor’s Cut would include the excised footage, a Director’s one would probably be even shorter). Even being largely unswayed by such concerns, though, Nemesis isn’t very good. It wants to hit the same kind of dramatic high notes as The Wrath of Khan (naturally, it’s always bloody Khan) but repeatedly drifts into an out-of-tune dirge.

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

By Jove, the natives are restless tonight.

The Avengers 4.17: Small Game for Big Hunters
I wonder if Death at Bargain Prices’ camping scene, suggestive of an exotic clime but based in a department store, was an inspiration for Small Game For Big Hunters’ more protracted excursion to the African country of Kalaya… in Hertfordshire. Gerry O’Hara, in his second of two episodes for the show again delivers on the atmosphere, making the most of Philip Levene’s teleplay.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

I think we’ve returned to Eden. Surely this is how the World once was in the beginning of time.

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
Ridley Scott’s first historical epic (The Duellists was his first historical, and his first feature, but hardly an epic) is also one of his least remembered films. It bombed at the box office (as did the year’s other attempted cash-ins on the discovery of America, including Superman: The Movie producers the Salkinds’ Christopher Columbus: The Discovery) and met with a less than rapturous response from critics. Such shunning is undeserved, as 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a richer and more thought-provoking experience than both the avowedly lowbrow Gladiator and the re-evaluated-but-still-so-so director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. It may stand guilty of presenting an overly sympathetic portrait of Columbus, but it isn’t shy about pressing a critical stance on his legacy.

Sanchez: The truth is, that he now presides over a state of chaos, of degradation, and of madness. From the beginning, Columbus proved himself completely incapable of ruling these islands…

Cally. Help us, Cally. Help Auron.

Blake's 7 3.7: Children of Auron

Roger Parkes goes a considerable way towards redeeming himself for the slop that was Voice from the Past with his second script for the series, and newcomer Andrew Morgan shows promise as a director that never really fulfilled itself in his work on Doctor Who (but was evident in Knights of God, the 1987 TV series featuring Gareth Thomas).

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…