The Jungle Book: Platinum Edition Review
The release of The Jungle Book in October 1967 was a much-needed success for the Disney studio. Noteworthy both for turning a profit during its initial theatrical run (the majority of the studio's prior releases didn't begin making money until years, if not decades, later), and for being the final film to be directly overseen by Walt Disney prior to his death in December 1966, it has attracted a cult following unlike virtually any other Disney production. Its popularity has endured for the better part of four decades and, if anything, has increased with age, frequently finding itself in lists of viewers' favourite films, including those that traditionally snub animation (it was, for example, ranked number 53 in Channel 4's 2001 "Top 100 Films of All Time" survey).
The story, an extremely loose adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's "Mowgli" stories, is, like many of the films produced by the studio during this period, light, loose and generally minimalist fare, more than hinting at the direction the studio's output would take following Walt's death. The overarching plot involves a young boy named Mowgli, orphaned as a baby in the jungle and raised by a pack of wolves. As the boy nears adolescence, however, the wolves, fearing for his safety, given that the ferocious tiger Shere Khan will never allow a man in his jungle, agree that he must return to his own kind, and entrust Bagheera the panther to lead him to the safety of the man village. Along the way, Mowgli meets a cast of colourful characters, including Kaa the snake, Colonel Hathi and his elephant brigade, Baloo the bear, and an eccentric primate named King Louie...
Throughout the early 1960s, with Disneyland and live action projects like Mary Poppins increasingly competing with animation for his attention, Walt Disney had taken a more hands-off approach to the story development of his cartoon features than had previously been the norm. Much of the responsibility for plot development was handed over to veteran storyman Bill Peet, who is credited exclusively for the stories for 1961's One Hundred and One Dalmatians and 1963's The Sword in the Stone. At the time, this constituted a distinct change of pace for the studio, where the traditional culture had always been that several storymen would collaborate together on plot development, "writing" the films (using storyboards rather than scripts, naturally) via a series of pitch sessions. With the budgetary cuts that were implemented following the financial hit the studio took after the release of 1959's Sleeping Beauty, tasks that had previously been the domain of multiple people suddenly fell on the shoulders of individuals and, with staffing levels at an all-time low, it was unsurprising that, when the time came to adapt The Jungle Book, Peet was once again tasked to formulate the story.
Walt, however, mindful of the negative public reaction to The Sword in the Stone, who saw its plot as meandering and inconsequential, was determined to once again exert his influence over this aspect of the production, and, when Peet turned in a dark, brooding treatment that was very faithful to Kipling's original novels, demanded that changes be made. This resulted in a major falling-out between the two men, and Peet subsequently left the studio, never to return. As a result, story development on The Jungle Book was begun again from scratch, with a return to the multi-writer structure of days gone by. Ironically enough, the final story, credited to writer Larry Clemmons, veteran storyman Ralph Wright, art director Ken Anderson and former layout artist Vance Gerry, fails to avoid the lackadaisical, episodic structure of The Sword in the Stone, although it certainly excises the darker elements from the source material.
Much of the film's success, it would seem, revolves around two key musical numbers - Terry Gilkyson's "The Bare Necessities" and the Sherman brothers' "I Wan'na Be Like You". The rest of the songs are, for a Disney feature, actually pretty forgettable, and the story has that same meandering feel to it that would characterise all of the post-Walt efforts until 1977's The Rescuers, at which point narrative once again began to make a resurgence. True, The Jungle Book's plot has a more defined goal to it than that of The Aristocats or Robin Hood (both of which, in this writer's opinion, demonstrate the absolute worst qualities of the "dark period" between Walt's death and the so-called "second golden age" that began with The Little Mermaid in 1989), but it's still thin on the ground and shows the animators growing somewhat self-indulgent, content to show their characters moving about the screen and interacting with each other without furthering the plot. That in itself is not necessarily a problem, and there are certainly some brilliant moments of character animation in which the simple line drawings seem to truly come to live (Mowgli and Baloo's interaction is a definite highlight, as is the initial encounter with Kaa), but it all feels a bit sluggish, and there are moments at which the slack pace and general lackadaisical quality of the plotting does become a bit of a strain. In particular, the sequences involving Colonel Hathi and his elephants, and the quartet of buzzards created as a nod to the then-current Beatles craze, are rather dull, with the elephants' second appearance towards the end of the second act coming across as mere time-filling.
The aforementioned buzzards are a perfect example of the strange contemporariness with which the film is infused, setting it apart from virtually every other Disney feature (at least prior to 1988's Oliver & Company), and this extends to the decision to bring in recognisable voices like Phil Harris and Louis Prima to bring the characters to life. This was the beginning of a definite shift in terms of voice casting in Disney's films that remains to this day, and in many respects could be argued to have given birth to the ugly trend of celebrity voice-overs for animated features and the bizarre belief that they "play" the characters in the same way that live action movie stars do. Harris, Prima et al are undeniably responsible for a lot of the appeal of Baloo, King Louie and so on, but it goes without saying that these characters would be nothing more than disembodied voices without the talents of the animation crew, among them veterans Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl and John Lounsbery at what many would consider the peak of their game. Budgetary cuts had reduced the animation crew to a skeletal level, but in many respects this may have worked to The Jungle Book's advantage, as it allowed the directing animators and their assistants the opportunity to invest a great deal of personality into their characters, which could easily have been lost had they been split among a larger team. One downside to the reduced budget, however, is the inordinate amount of reused animation on display, recycling footage not just from within the film but also from earlier efforts, with several shots of the wolf-cubs being traced from animation of the puppies in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and scenes with Mowgli being borrowed from Wart in The Sword in the Stone and Christopher Robin in Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (the latter being of particular note as both Christopher Robin and Mowgli were voiced by Bruce Reitherman, son of long-term Disney director Wolfgang Reitherman).
The popularity of The Jungle Book continues to endure, and with good reason, but my opinion stands that it is somewhat overrated. Much of its popularity, I suspect, stems from the constant replaying of "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wan'na Be Like You" in various television anthologies, which, when taken in isolation, give the impression that the entire film is infused with their level of fun and excitement. Conversely, remove these two sequences, and the film suddenly becomes considerably less than the sum of its parts. So, while The Jungle Book certainly doesn't shame Walt Disney's legacy as the final film that he oversaw, it fails to live up to glossier, bigger budget productions like Pinocchio or Lady and the Tramp. In a sense, this film lives up to its motto of "The Bare Necessities", but at the same time shows that this is not always a good thing.
Note: the image quality portion of this review was co-written by DVD Times hardware specialist David Mackenzie.)
Like all new releases of Disney's animated classics, The Jungle Book has been digitally remastered. In this case, "digitally remastered" means that the film has been extensively treated, by Disney's regular collaborators at DTS Digital Images, to give it a clean, glossy, video look. In this regard, they've certainly succeeded, and have done so without the disturbing stabilisation errors that affected their earlier remaster of Bambi. From looking at this disc, it really is hard to tell that this ever came from film - not something I personally agree with or find appealing, but for what it is, the restoration is a good job.
DTS's restoration isn't done full justice in this DVD presentation, as the level of detail present, like most standard definition DVDs, is average at best and doesn't take full advantage of the 720x480 pixels available. Most likely, the image has been softened to allow for a lower bit-rate (and perhaps to make a future HD release appear even better by comparison). The characters never really stand out in comparison to the backgrounds in the way that you'd expect.
There are also some strange colour banding issues present in the transfer, which affect only specific shots - an example of which appears at 00:08:36. I'm at a loss to explain them, but, fortunately enough, they don't creep up too often. A comparison between this release and the old 1999 Limited Issue, release, meanwhile, reveals dramatically a different colour balance. While the warmer hues of this new release look more accurate to me than the decidedly blue-green look of the earlier version, there are a few moments where things don't look quite right, with Bagheera's blue-grey fur often meaning that he doesn't "read" properly against the sky during night shots, whereas, on the previous DVD, he clearly stood out.
Left: original 1999 DVD release; right: 2007 Platinum Edition DVD release
This is a decidedly problematic release, and not just because of the restoration. The main issue stems from Disney's decision to present the film in a matted widescreen ratio of 1.75:1. To briefly explain, although most commercial cinemas had become widescreen-only by the mid-1950s, Disney continued to animate their films in the Academy (1.33:1) ratio until as recently as the late 1970s (or early 80s, depending on who you listen to), and it is in this ratio that most of the studio's films of the period were released on DVD until recently (with 1977's The Rescuers, framed at 1.66:1, being the odd duck). These DVDs were open matte, revealing the entire Academy frame as drawn by the animators (again, there seems to be a single exception to this, with the 1.33:1-formatted The Fox and the Hound looking noticeably cropped on VHS, LaserDisc and DVD).
With the 2006 re-release of 1973's Robin Hood, however, all this changed. Previously released in the Academy ratio, the new DVD used the unusual ratio of 1.75:1, matting the image at the top and bottom and as a result reducing the vertical dimensions. The altered framing made the artwork seem much tighter - some might say claustrophobic. There remains no small amount of debate as to what the correct ratio for much of Disney's 60s and 70s back catalogue should be, but there are clearly moments in this presentation of The Jungle Book, as there were with Robin Hood, when the framing looks unquestionably wrong, with the tops of characters' heads disappearing at the top of the screen, while their feet frequently skirt just below the bottom of the frame in a way that I can't believe was intended by the animators. A small amount of information is gained at the sides, but far more is lost.
Luckily, such criticisms need not be levelled against the audio presentation, which is excellent across the board. As is standard with their Platinum Editions (at least in Region 1 territories), Disney have provided both a souped-up 5.1 "Disney Enhanced Home Theatre" mix and a restored version of the original mono track. As with 20th Century Fox's recent special edition of The Omen, the 5.1 remix is of particular note due to the fact that, for the first time, it uses the original stereo recordings of George Bruns' score and the various musical numbers, allowing the audience to appreciate them in what is arguably closer to their originally intended form.
The 5.1 mix is actually fairly conservative, and, while flicking back and form between it and the original mono track, the only substantial difference appeared to be the music. For purists, though, the mono track will definitely be preferable, and it sounds a little more natural, since, on the 5.1 track, there is a distinct discrepancy between the crystal clear score and the more obviously aged vocal work.
Subtitles are provided in English for the film itself and all of the bonus features, including the audio commentary.
As with all of Disney's Platinum Editions to date, the bonus materials are spread across two discs, with the majority to be found on the second. After this year's rather disappointing line-up of extras for Peter Pan, I'm pleased to report that The Jungle Book constitutes something of a return to form, with a lavish array of materials that are genuinely informative rather than merely being a collection of child-oriented activities.
First up on Disc 1 is an audio commentary featuring composer Richard Sherman, voice actor Bruce Reitherman (Mowgli) and current Disney supervising animator Andreas Deja, who acts as something of a moderator for the conversation and who credits this film with his decision to become an animator. Normally I am somewhat wary of commentaries for animated features featuring voice actors, as they generally have even less of note to say than the stars of live action films, but this is not true of Reitherman, who shows an impressive understanding of the art form and also manages to impart a wealth of anecdotes about both the film's production and Walt Disney himself, given that he was often in and around the studio at the time of the making of the film. This is a first-rate commentary through and through, with the three speakers each approaching their own areas of expertise with a high level of insight and professionalism, and often engaging in some enjoyable banter among themselves. Brief archival sound bites also provide an insight into the thoughts of director Wolfgang Reitherman, directing animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, and storyman Larry Clemmons.
This is followed by a solitary deleted scene which features a rhinoceros named Rocky who was ultimately completely removed from the film. Running for just under seven minutes, this piece, which is comprised of an introductory explanation and then the scene in question in storyboard form with added voice-overs and music.
The next section, given the traditional Disney moniker of "Music & More", contains an absolutely skin-crawling pop rock rendition of "I Wan'na Be Like You" by a trio of greasy-haired teenagers called the Jonas Brothers, whom I presume are the latest products to step off the conveyor belt at the Disney Channel factory. Do yourself a favour and skip this entirely, as it will only result in a desire to claw out your eyes and eardrums, and instead move on to the Deleted Songs section, which showcases 21 minutes' worth of musical numbers written by the song's original composer, Terry Gilkyson, before he was replaced by the Sherman brothers ("The Bare Necessities", presented here in an alternate form, was the only one of his songs to make the final cut). A "Disney Song Selection" feature, which allows you to jump straight to four of the key musical numbers from the film, and watch them with on-screen lyrics, is also included here.
The final feature on Disc 1 is a 4-minute promotional piece for Disney Wildlife/Worldwide Conservation Fund. Moving on...
...to Disc 2, which is split into two different sections. "Jungle Fun" contains your usual array of naff games and activities aimed at pre-schoolers, my experiences with which, for the sake of your sanity and mine, I won't attempt to recount in this review. The real meat and potatoes is to be found in "The Man Village", which includes close to 80 minutes' worth of material.
The main documentary, entitled "The Bare Necessities: The Making of The Jungle Book", features a 46-minute running time and does an admirable job of placing the film in its proper historical context, establishing it as being very much a transitional period for the studio, given the sudden and unexpected loss of its leader, and the rest of the team's ensuing scramble to regain their sense of direction (which, some would argue, was not found until more than two decades later). All the bases are covered, from story adaptation to voices to animation to music, and a considerable effort as clearly been made to track down and interview as many of the surviving crew members as possible. Many of those who are no longer alive, including director Wolfgang Reitherman, songwriter Robert Sherman and writer Larry Clemmons, also show up in the form of archival materials, most of which date from the early 1980s. As with the audio commentary on Disc 1, this documentary is a superlative example of the form, conveying a wealth of information in a polished, engaging manner.
The 15-minute "Disney's Kipling", meanwhile, provides a fascinating insight into three distinct versions of the story: Kipling's original, Bill Peet's initial adaptation, and the final version that made it to the screen. Going through various key sequences, this featurette lays out the key differences between the different versions, accompanied by a combination of clips, narrated storyboard frames and bold illustrations intended to accompany a publication of Kipling's book. This featurette also provides a look at how Baloo was changed from the rather stern figure in Kipling's original into the lazy, light-hearted character found in the film.
Of the remaining three featurettes, the 9-minute "The Lure of The Jungle Book" interviews many key figures in contemporary animation, including The Incredibles' director Brad Bird, animation historian John Canemaker and various animators, who consider the film to have been instrumental in inspiring their passion for the art form. The 5-minute "Mowgli's Return to the Wild", meanwhile, finds voice actor Bruce Reitherman discussing his subsequent forays into the world of film as a nature documentarian, while the 4-minute "Frank & Ollie" provides an all too brief look at the partnership between two of Disney's key animators, estimated to have been responsible for as much as 50% of The Jungle Book's footage between them. This featurette seems to date back to the early 1980s, and is, unfortunately, no relation to the feature length documentary of the same name that is available separately.
Finally, a lavish art gallery featuring an impressive array of designs, storyboards, layouts, backgrounds, behind the scenes photographs and publicity images has been provided. The only key archival feature that seems to be missing here is the film's original theatrical trailer, which I personally feel would have made this already impressive package feel that bit more complete.
While it would have been nice to have had the alternate Academy ratio version of the film included in the package, it goes without saying that this new Platinum Edition of The Jungle Book belongs on every Disney aficionado's shelf. Controversial aspect ratio choice aside, this is a stellar package with an array of bonus materials that ranks among the best the studio has ever put out.
7 out of 10
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Last updated: 19/04/2018 01:07:25