The Jungle Book: Platinum Edition - 40th Anniversary Review
The black panther Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot) hears a baby crying in the jungle. Finding a basket in a ruined boat and wondering what to do with the child, Bagheera grips the basket in his mouth and takes it to a pack of wolves. When the mother wolf and her cubs looked in the basket and discovered a laughing little baby, they agreed to raise the boy as their own and for ten years he lived in the jungle under the guidance of Rama (Ben Wright), running with the wolves. One day, though, news reaches the wolf pack that the Bengal tiger Shere Khan (George Sanders) has returned to the jungle and brings with him a deep-seated hatred of mankind. Thatnight, the wolf pack meets with Bagheera. Akela (John Abbott), the leader, tells the panther that Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman) is in danger and must leave at once. That night, Bagheera and Mowgli leave the wolf pack, with one leading the other to a man-village not far away.
Mowgli, however, is not very keen on leaving the jungle. At every opportunity that he has, he runs off, finding himself tied up in the coils of Kaa the snake (Sterling Holloway), marching with Colonel Hathi (J Pat O'Malley) and his elephants, picking prickly pears with Baloo (Phil Harris), being kidnapped by King Louie (Louis Prima) and singing with the vultures Buzzie, Ziggy, Dizzy and Flaps (J Pat O'Malley, Digby Wolfe, Lord Tim Hudson and Chad Stuart). But as the lightning flashes overhead, Mowgli hears a growl from behind the long grass. Shere Khan has found his quarry and extends his claws as he readies himself to eat the boy.
Michael Mackenzie wrote a very thorough review of the Region 1 release of The Jungle Book in the last week, in which he included the history of the film's production within the Walt Disney Studios. I refer you to that piece as this review will not cover the history of The Jungle Book, rather where it succeeds as a film and where it does not. One of the points that Michael made and which I would agree with is that The Jungle Book, due to Disney's practice of withholding films from general release, is probably more fondly remembered for a couple of songs than for the film itself. Part of this is no doubt due to Disney's release schedule, which leaves a film like The Jungle Book out of general circulation for a decade or so while children are born, grow up and reach their teens without ever seeing it. However, what they do see are the scenes of Baloo and Mowgli singing Bare Necessities and Baloo and King Louie's I Wanna Be Like You, as I once did, on Bank Holiday Disney specials, on sing-along compilation videos and Disney audio soundtracks. Never, unfortunately, in the completed film.
It might well be due to being familiar with those two songs but they do stand out from the rest of the film and from the Sherman Brothers songs that pop up throughout The Jungle Book, including Colonel Hathi's March, Trust In Me and barbershop quartet of That's What Friends Are For. Bare Necessities, though composed by Terry Gilkyson, might well be amongst the very best songs recorded for a Disney film, a rollicking jazz number that is less a simple song than an entire way of life, a call to easygoing arms in which Baloo instructs Mowgli on the rules of living free in the jungle. "Forget about your worry and your strife!", he sings, because, "The bare necessities of life will come to you!" I Wanna Be Like You is a call-and-response jazz number between bandleaders Phil Harris and Louis Prima in which King Louie tries to extract the secret of fire from Mowgli, not realising that a little boy who has lived in the jungle from birth will have no more an inkling for fire than he will for driving. His interrogation, no matter that however persuasive it is, it is also gentle to a fault, is interrupted by Baloo, dressed in monkey drag and crashing into King Louie's jungle home with all the care of, well, a bear in a grass skirt.
What these two songs have in common is the presence of Phil Harris, who is one of the most memorable of all the voice actors employed by Disney over several films. Although the kind of animal he played was different in each one, Harris' laidback charm made Baloo, as well as Little John (Robin Hood) and Thomas O'Malley (The Aristocats), the star of The Jungle Book. However, as star, when he's not onscreen, the film tends to drag. Bagheera does well to bring the story to life but once Baloo appears, it's an entirely different film. However, the counter-effect of this starring role is that when Mowgli runs away from Baloo, The Jungle Book limps to a conclusion. The vultures who appear late in the film are not an interesting lot, Kaa the snake does very little other than hypnotise Mowgli once again while neither Shere Khan's entrance nor exit is particularly well dealt with. If it wasn't for Baloo holding tight to Shere Khan's tail, it would be a poor showing for the confrontation between man-cub and tiger.
Episodic in nature with Mowgli not doing very much more than meeting various animals in the forest, The Jungle Book is, this viewer would suggest, overrated. It's not a bad film but it's probably not very much better than The Aristocats, which also bumbles along between encounters. However, The Aristocats is at least optimistic in outlook. The animals that Duchess and the kittens meet en route back to Paris are a helpful lot, with it only being Edgar the Butler who works against them. On the contrary, Kaa and Shere Khan both try to eat Mowgli and King Louie and the monkeys kidnap him to learn how to make fire. Even the vultures, who later profess themselves to be Mowgli's friends, look like eating him at one point. The implication is that the jungle is an awful place and that one would be very much better out of it. The animated version of Tarzan has an altogether more positive view of life in the jungle.
At least Harris' role is almost identical in both films - Thomas O'Malley is virtually the same character as Baloo, O'Malley The Alley Cat has the same life lessons as Bare Necessities and Ev'rybody Wants To Be A Cat has Scatman Crothers in place of Louis Prima - but where The Aristocats has been available for many years, a certain frenzy has built up around The Jungle Book due to its absence from cinemas and from video/DVD. Although released on VHS and DVD in December 1999, The Jungle Book has become quite notorious for the sheer number of bootleg copies that have since appeared for sale on online auction sites. The sales figures for The Jungle Book will no doubt be aided by the film having been out of circulation for so long but beyond the half-hour or so in which Baloo appears front and centre of the film, it's hard to see quite what all the fuss was about.
That's not to say that The Jungle Book is a bad film, more that it's entertaining, has a couple of great songs in it and one memorable character but it's really any better a film than The Aristocats or Lady And The Tramp and certainly nowhere near the quality of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs or Pinocchio. However, perhaps its trouble comes with trying to tie entertainment into a film that's darker and more brooding than Disney had hoped for. The raucous scenes with Baloo and King Louie are great but the ending, which ought to be dramatic and serious as Mowgli is faced by a tiger intent on eating him, is overshadowed by the musical numbers. Shere Khan is, not literally, declawed. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White do a much better job of building to a terrifying conclusion simply by not peaking half an hour in. The Jungle Book, on the other hand, comes and goes with Baloo and when he's not the screen, it's very much more muted than when he is.
In Michael's review of The Jungle Book, David Mackenzie contributed a review of the quality of the DVD, which I agree with, even if, being one of the less-technically minded contributors here, I didn't actually understand some of it. No matter, my take on the transfer of the film on to DVD is that it's generally very good with the remastering of the film
My problem is more that for as long as I have been watching Disney films on DVD, they have not, as yet, appeared to have decided exactly what to do with their films on DVD. Just when you think they might be getting it right with regards to presenting a film in its original aspect ratio, they appear to change their minds once again. The early days were marked by pan-and-scanned versions of Cinemascope-style films (Sleeping Beauty, actually in Technirama), followed by non-anamorphic presentations of 1.66:1 films, such as Hercules and Pocahontas. With Snow White, Disney looked as though they were finally getting it right, even to issuing the beautifully-made Sleeping Beauty in 2.35:1. It looked as though a threshold had finally be crossed. But now we have films that looked perfectly acceptable in 1.33:1 being cropped for a 1.75:1 frame with the picture losing action at the top and bottom of the screen.
I don't doubt that Disney base their decisions on the views of children and while my three might not represent much in the way of statistical analysis, they have never once complained about watching a fullscreen picture on a widescreen television, nor of watching Sleeping Beauty on a little portable, on which just over half the screen is picture. In fact, since buying an upscaling DVD player, they are now forced to watch the non-anamorphic Hercules presented letterbox style in the middle of the screen with black bars on all four sides. Not a word of complaint was heard. Indeed, I would suggest that far from watching these films on a new plasma or LCD HD-ready television, Disney's animated films will be playing on portable televisions in bedrooms, in nursery schools and in hospitals up and down the land in which not one child will care one way or the other. So, please Disney, can't we, as every other major studio seemed to have decided upon several years ago, simply have these films presented as they were first made?
As to the actual transfer, it does look very good and, beyond the aspect ratio, has not been unduly tinkered with. Baloo's snout still looks pleasingly scratchy, the edges of the characters don't appear to have been cleaned up to any great degree and the colours are rich and warm throughout. It's also quite a dark film, particularly in the opening few minutes and come the return of Shere Khan near its end but the DVD does well throughout, perhaps a little softer than I would have liked but good nonetheless. Unfortunately, on Region 2, we don't get the original mono soundtrack, only the DD5.1. This Disney Enhanced Home Theatre is fine and is much clearer a listen than I would have expected it to be. The songs, in particular, have been cleaned up and sound simply terrific. However, not a great deal has been added to the rear channels to make this Disney Enhanced Home Theatre mix as, other than some ambient effects in the ending, most of the action is spread nicely between the front three speakers. Finally, there are English, Dutch and Hindi subtitles.
Commentary: This is the main extra on the first disc and features composer Richard Sherman, actor Bruce Reitherman, who played Mowgli, and Disney animator Andreas Deja. Deja is not only the host for the commentary but, as the only animator, looks at The Jungle Book with a professional eye to narrate its animation, the strength of its characters and to describe how it has remained so well-loved over the last forty years. Reitherman tells some anecdotes from the production and there are some archive sound clips from those who worked on the film but the standout contributor is Richard Sherman whose compositions grace many a Disney film (and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and who is gracious and knowledgeable throughout this track. He is a genuine pleasure to listen to and is generous to so very many others.
Deleted Scene (6m36s): Punchdrunk Rocky The Rhino never made it past the storyboard stage but this rescues him somewhat, using the original storyboards to describe how his scene alongside the buzzards would have worked. The best part comes with the finding of a version of That's What Friends Are For played less in a barbershop style and more in the manner of The Beatles, complete with George Harrison fuzztone guitar.
Music & More: 'tis a pity The Jonas Brothers, who have recorded a version of I Wanna Be Like You (2m51s) for this DVD, didn't decide to call round Phil Spector's on the same night as did Lana Clarkson as we might well have been spared this. Still...teen pop stars and Disney don't always mix so one can but hope that Jonas, Jonas and Jonas will, in the future, crash and burn as visibly as did Britney. They are followed by a Song Selection feature, which allows the picture to jump straight to a song, including the Phil Harris and Louis Prima version of I Wanna Be Like You. Finally, there is a set of Deleted Songs (20m44s), which includes a demo of songs by Terry Gilkyson, including a version of The Bare Necessities.
Finally, there is a short film by the Disney Conservation Fund (3m35s).
Baloo's Virtual Singin' Jungle Cruise: This begins with a collection of games. Kaa-Zen-Tration pits the viewer against the hypnotic snake, getting them to use the arrow keys to break his spell when identifying the psychedelic whorls of his eyes. The next game, Hathi's Boot Camp, is a Simon Says game where the viewer must match the symbols pointed out by Colonel Hathi whereas Buzzard Shop Quartet is a counting game with the viewer having to count the birds that fly to and from a branch. Finally, Louie's Lounge is a simple rhythm game using the arrow keys. None of these are very difficult but play them enough and things begin to speed up quite considerably.
Disney Junglepedia (14m21s): This feature mixes footage from The Jungle Book and real-life footage of jungle animals to reveal the background to the characters in the film. As one might expect, this takes in sloth bears, tigers, panthers, elephants and orangutans.
Fun With Language Games: There are four included here, two of which are only available on PC. They are simple little games that get the viewer to remember some simple words and to aid the characters in the film with their finding out words and the whereabouts of the animals.
Making Of The Jungle Book (46m27s): This documentary begins with the background of the team that would go on to make The Jungle Book, particularly story man Bill Peet who brought the idea of filming Rudyard Kipling's book to Walt Disney and began storyboarding it. However, with Disney unhappy at the tone of the story and stung by the criticism of Peet's The Sword In The Stone, Walt took charge and Peet left. What we see of Peet's storyboards look interesting. They would certainly have changed the tone of the film to something more dramatic with the background art looking quite daring next to the rather more straightforward jungles of the finished film. Unfortunately, in this viewer's opinion, that's partly the fault of the film, which is strong on characters but finds them weakening what should have been a strong story. With a mix of archive interviews and those conducted in the last year, writers, story artists and composers Richard and Robert Sherman offer their thoughts on The Jungle Book, as does director Brad Bird, with the documentary drawing out the making of the film, from Peet's departure, through the storyboarding, the voice casting, animation and on to its release one year after Walt Disney's death, this is a fascinating and engaging film.
Disney's Kipling (15m02s): Following on from what little we saw of Bill Peet's unfinished version of The Jungle Book, this feature allows us to see very much more of it, using Peet's storyboards to tie Rudyard Kipling's original story to Disney's animated version. By choosing certain key scenes, this reveals the differences in all three takes of the film with Peet's version seeming the most complete, with less jumps around the story and more of a sense of it coming with a certain logic. In Peet's version, for instance, there's a better explanation of the importance of fire and why the animals fear it so, which leads Mowgli to having some knowledge of it when running out of the man-village to face Shere Khan. In the finished version, Mowgli is more of a chancer who got lucky with a lightning strike.
The Lure Of The Jungle Book (9m28s): Animators, director Brad Bird and animation historian John Canemaker are interviewed in this feature talking about their admiration for The Jungle Book. Unsurprisingly, the sequence between Mowgli and Baloo is named as a highlight but each one brings something different, notably Bird who, aged 11, realised through The Jungle Book that drawing and animating could actually be a job. In his words, The Jungle Book, "made becoming an adult suddenly sound much more attractive...because there were cool things to be done!"
Mowgli's Return To The Wild (5m10s): Bruce Reitherman starred in The Jungle Book as Mowgli, while this short feature recounts what he did next, becoming a documentary-filmmaker specialising in wildlife films. Reitherman is interviewed, drawing parallels between his life and that of his father, while we also see him at work.
Frank & Ollie (3m46s): Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Disney's leading animators, feature in archive interviews talking about animating the characters. They draw particular attention to Mowgli and Baloo.
Art Galleries: There are six very complete image galleries, taking in Visual Development (56x), Character Design (63x), Storyboard Art (78x), Layouts And Backgrounds (45x), Production Photos (40x) and Publicity (14x).
All of these bonus features are subtitled in French and Dutch.