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 was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded
The Premise
George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his…

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985)
(SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and gleefully distr…

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983)
(SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bonds in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball, but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again, despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

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…