Blast from the Past – The Jungle Book (1967)

Nature, cheerfully technicolour in tooth and claw.
Nature, cheerfully Technicolor in tooth and claw.

“The Jungle is JUMPIN'”

Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
Starring Bruce Reitherman, Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima, George Sanders, Sterling Holloway and others

A young infant is adopted by a family of wolves and named Mowgli (Reitherman), but the pack kick him out when Shere Khan (Sanders) the tiger comes hunting. As his guardian Bagheera the Panther (Cabot!) tries to escort the reluctant Mowgli to the nearest man village, he encounters the insinuating python Kaa (Holloway), the cheerful bear Baloo (Harris) and the mocking monkeys of orangutan King Louis (Prima,) before his final showdown with Shere Khan.

What’s wrong with it?

So, you know how I always say I’m not going to harp on about the changes from the book, and then I do?

In common with a number of Disney productions of its time (The Sword in the Stone springs to mind) The Jungle Book takes the characters and situations of the original and mines them for the lightest, most comedic interpretation. Of all the animals, only the wolves – who are only in the first five minutes of the picture – and Shere Khan are not in some sense clowns. Baloo is a loveable oaf, Bagheera the hapless straight man, Kaa an insinuating incompetent (and a villain, because snake I guess,) and Hathi a blowhard Colonel Blimp.

The Bandar-Log are a New Orleans dance hall band, and it’s very notable that King Louis – an original character to the film – shares a name with band leader and voice actor Louis Prima, rather than having a name derived from Kipling’s (somewhat incomplete) knowledge of India. Also, that he is an animal not indigenous to India.

The film whittles the core narratives of the Mowgli stories – the lifelong enmity between Shere Khan and Mowgli, and the conflict of human blood and jungle upbringing – down to the bookends of an eventful few days. Mowgli is, despite ten years among the Seeonee wolf pack, little more than a precocious child, and the existential struggle of ‘The Spring Running’ comes down to “I don’t want to leave the jungle not ever oh look a girl.”

The vultures are weird, being sort of based on the Beatles only they couldn’t get them to do the voices so they’re not all actually Scouse and… Well, it’s a bit of a mishmash.

What’s right with it?

The Jungle Book contains a lot of very catchy tunes and fun sequences. ‘The Bare Necessities’ may reference a lot of New World vegetation, but it’s a cracking tune, and ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ is swinging enough to forgive a lot.

How bad is it really?

As an adaptation of Kipling’s Mowgli stories, The Jungle Book really bites, but as a film in its own right it’s a lot of fun. It’s got problems, but also a lot of heart.

Best bit (if such there is)?

  • It’s much of a muchness to me, but my daughter really enjoys seeing Kaa’s coils get all crinkled.

What’s up with…?

  • Turning Kaa into a villain? I get that adaptation is its own art, but I’m not sure how making the snake into a simpering, ineffectual villain instead of a loyal, proud, stonecold badass counts as adaptation, however.
  • On a similar note, turning Hathi the Silent, embodiment of quiet, considered dignity into a pompous ass., although that at least can be explained as a simple preference for comedic characters.

Ratings

Production values – After almost fifty years, the animation still looks pretty good, and the audio is clear and crisp. For me, the animal characters are a little too anthropomorphised, and inconsistently so (Shere Khan much more than Bagheera for example, and Baloo more than anyone.) 2
Dialogue and performances – There’s some excellent voice work, but it’s very, very human. Somewhat in common with The Lion King, there’s no sense of the animal in the voices. Without the pictures, they would fit a completely human set of characters almost as well. 6
Plot and execution – Shere Khan barely appears until the final quarter of the film, and the rest sort of rambles to and fro between largely discrete episodes of peril. On the other hand, it is basically framed as a road movie without a road. 8
Randomness – There’s not too much of this internally, although the Disney research division raises its ugly head again with its Indian orangutans and displaced prickly pears. 6
Waste of potential – I just can’t help feeling that there’s a better, more dramatic, if less jolly, film in the material. I guess I’ll find out next April if I was right, or at least if Disney manage to produce it. Still and all, this is a very enjoyable movie. 8

Overall 30%

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