The Jungle Book (1967) Review
What do I know about the film?
A common trend in modern pop culture shenanigans is taking pre-existing work and giving it a ‘dark edge’ or a ‘gritty reboot’ to try and attract a more mature audience than a literal interpretation of the original art would. It is usually less an attempt to present the adapter as an auteur with a singular vision and more a transparent effort to cash in on what people are currently enjoying in cinema and television. In the last couple of years this is particularly true of traditional fairy stories and while it is not always bad it is certainly tiresome, like when you go see a play and all the actors come out in black clothing on a minimalist stage: Sure, you still might have a good evening but your expectations have just been lowered, no?
But this review is not about Hansel and Gretel and the Snow White and the Huntsman: Vampire Killers or whatever the fuck that was all about. So why do I bring up this modern trend in a reflective piece about a film from the 60’s? Well for two reasons: One, starting these reviews is hard (I have several jobs and writing isn’t one of them ok?) and Two, the story of Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book’ begins with the same trick in reverse.
Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘The Second Jungle Book’ (Who names your sequels Kipling?) are a collection of short stories that are, by and large, morality tales featuring a bunch of animals knocking about in the Indian Jungle. Have you read them? I have. They are…Erm…Weeell…It is strange. I read them as an adult (well I was about 19) and while I recognised the characters from my encounter with the Disney version they seemed…different. Darker. More subdued. Intense. Angry. Pretty sinister. And brutal as all Hell in places. It really is a jungle out there, guys.
These were all qualities that appealed to writer Bill Peet who spent a considerable amount of time faithfully adapting the stories to create a feature length animated film that was going to be ‘dark.’ He was confident it would work. But he hadn’t reckoned with The King.
What up bitches?
Walter liked the shape of the idea and bought the rights to the book but was not kind about Peet’s unsupervised first draft. Disney didn’t think families wanted to see films where Tigers get skinned and worn as a trophy by a sociopathic Wolf Boy. So he suggested a different approach:
Children love…Whatever this is
Peet was pretty appalled by the idea of a watered down jungle and an intense battle began. Peet stood firm. After all, he had justice on his side…Wait. He wrote Sword in the Stone? He…He was responsible for THAT ‘story?’ GET HIM WALT! FINISH HIM!
I could have been learning French!
Yep, Walt pointed out that Peet’s last attempt at an adaptation had been a commercial ball ache. Conveniently ignoring that Peet’s previous writing on ‘101 Dalmatians’ had lead to the biggest Disney success since ‘Snow White.’ That’s how bad ‘Sword in the Stone’ is. It reverses good and chokes hope.
Peet responded to Disney’s slight by departing the project ending a 25 year run at the Walt Disney Studios. But Walter wasn’t going to let a little thing like the end of a quarter of a century long friendship ruin an idea that was good for business.
He got a little team of four dudes together, headed by Larry Clemmons, and began their working relationship with this little gem: He gave them the book and then made them promise never to read it.
Mickey hates books…He says we should burn them…
Picture the scene: You have been asked to adapt a text widely regarded as an important literary work and are handed a copy of the book in question only to be told that the only rule of Disney Club is you can’t read it. And then while you are trying to create movie magic on these frustratingly vague instructions your big boss keeps dropping by to suggest jokes and act out bits that he thinks should be in the film. It must have been like working for Willy Fucking Wonka.
So Walt Wonka was determined that ‘The Jungle Book’ was going to be an enjoyable family comedy and, after a few films where he was not satisfied with the result, nothing was going to get signed off without his approval. He was seeing this one through to the end…
Only he got sick. A lifelong chain smoker, he was diagnosed with lung cancer in November 1966 and died on the 15th of December that same year shortly after turning 65. Contrary to the urban legend he was not cryogenically frozen. It would seem this particularly persistent rumour was started by a disgruntled employee and it is a meme that has grown to the point that I was actually surprised to learn that there is no viable evidence to support it at all.
Despite Walter Disney literally sounding like the worst boss in history, the tributes that flowed after his death from those who worked for him were almost universally heartfelt and positive. His megalomania may have been undeniable but it found a home in Hollywood where it was able to thrive. He was a visionary who made the impossible happen and the world a more interesting and magical place. His brother Roy Disney succeeded the family business. A hell of a pair of shoes to fill.
I am actually going to miss you, you ol’ psycho
Anyways, back to The Jungle Book. On the dearly departed Disney’s instructions, Kipling’s dark morality tales with their social and political commentary and menacing undercurrent were thrown out in favour of wacky animal hijinks, jazz singers and tried and tested Disney voice actors. So is the last film the great Walt Man worked on a cringe inducing, cuddly mess or a solid inverse of the ‘make it darker’ trope?
Well I’m glad you asked…
Did I see it as a child?
Yes I did indeed. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. I invented this section largely for the films I have not seen so I can place bets on what my viewing experience will be like. But it has become a place where I also talk about how other adaptations and interpretations of the Disney brand or original text saturated into my formative years. And I have a doozy for you today!
There are some ideas that I just don’t see how they came to be. I like to think of myself as a creative type but there is a point where thinking outside of the box ends and picking random words out of a hat begins. Because who…Who…WHO…rocked up to the Disney Channel and pitched this? Below is the imagined (told you I was creative, like) meeting. Cast your minds back to 1990…
Executive 1: Hi. I understand you want to pitch a show to be part of our Disney Afternoon segment?
Crazy Bastard: Thanks for having me. What I have in mind is a fictional city called Cape Suzette in a fictional country called Usland. The city lies in a harbour protected by giant cliffs through which only a small opening exists. The opening in the cliffs is guarded by anti-aircraft artillery, preventing flying rabble-rousers or air pirates from entering the city. Each episode will focus around the work of a struggling courier company.
Executive 1: Right…How is that going to appeal to children?
CB: Well obviously all the characters are animals…
E1: Sure, we are Disney…
CB: And because 90’s kids are so into attitude I thought the navigator could be a 12 year old boy bear with a backwards cap who, despite the story being set in the 1930’s, would be able to cloud surf and use modern colloquialisms…
E1: Wait, it is going to be set in the 30’s? I thought you said it was a bunch of animals living in a fictional country?
CB: Yeah about 20 years after WW1 ended…And I want that All in the Family actress to play a Rebecca from Cheers type so she and Baloo the Bear can have a screwball comedy thing going on, a kind of will they…
E1: Sorry, can I stop you there: Who did you say was going to…
CB: Sorry, sorry, nerves y’know? Sally Struthers from ‘All in the Family’
E1: No… you mentioned Baloo…You mean from The Jungle Book? only now Baloo…is romantically involved with a soap actress?
CB: No he is a pilot. And a damn good one. And Sally Struthers isn’t playing a soap actress she administrates the company.
E1: So… So it is a spin off series from The Jungle Book?
CB: No. What gave you that idea? No, it has nothing to do with the film ‘The Jungle Book’ I just want the character of Baloo. Oh and King Louie is there but he is not an antagonist, he wears a Hawaiian shirt and runs a bar on the airfield. And Shere Khan stands upright and wears a business suit. Now he is still a baddie but there are loads of baddies. And we’d better have the little Scottish terrier from ‘Lady and the Tramp’ Just in case.
E1: In case of…what?
CB: Exactly. Look, it has a marketable loveable rouge lead, a kid with a backwards cap who behaves like a brat but is superhumanly talented at something and a fantastic, hear it once and you’ll never forget it theme song: 90’s Law dictates children will watch it.
E1: Well I am fresh out of fucks to give, so sure.
And lo, we did watch it. I can’t really tell you why or if it was good or anything because too many years have passed. But I watched it. Like the TV Machine told me to. And that theme song is fantastic.
Anyway, back to the 60’s…
A panther named Bagheera finds a human baby alone in the jungle and decides to leave him near the home of some wolves without any explanation. The wolves come outside to see what is in the basket and, on discovering that it is live meat, gratefully tear the child apart.
Ok, ok that’s not how it ends. Somehow the Panther knows he can count on the maternal instincts of Mama Wolf and the baby boy is raised as a sort of Wolf Boy, or Man Cub if you will, growing up with the wiles, wits and small orange pants of your typical jungle beast. However the infamous man-hating tiger Shere Khan is not impressed on hearing that the child has been living among the animals and is determined to kill him before he grows out of being a boy. So after a meeting on the pretty unimpressive Council Rock, the wolves decide the Man Cub, Mowgli, must be sent to live with his own kind. Mowgli is opposed to the idea of leaving the jungle and much tomfoolery ensues as he tries to avoid it, particularly when he runs into a ‘jungle bum’ (I am confused…How can a bear be unemployed?) named Baloo…
Full disclosure here: This is the first film in my run of Disney movies that I watched in a cinema. Now to be clear, I am not talking about when I was a child. I watched many Disney movies in the cinema as a kidling. I mean since I started this silly and slow moving project I have always watched or rewatched the films either in my house or at a friends. But it just so happened that a few months ago my local independent cinema was showing ‘Jungle Book’ and I thought watching it on the big screen might be fun so a couple of my favourite people and a bag of sweet popcorn later, there I was on a Sunday afternoon, surrounded by a packed cinema of kids and parents.
I tell you this not so you will envy my cosmopolitan, devil may care, weekend exploits but because watching a film with a huge number of people will impact on your enjoyment for better or worse and so this context may be relevant. And also, I am thrilled to report, it went down a storm in the multiplex.
There were some very young people there but after the boring old credits were done, everyone behaved beautifully and became completely absorbed in the story. It was a lot of fun watching it with a crowd of families and hearing their reactions to old corny jokes, jazz music and scary Tigers (One very vocal girl had to leave the cinema whenever he was on screen such was her terror) For the record: Children really, really love it when beloved characters get injured and/or hit on the bum. Parents, it turns out, really love it when children are force fed bananas. Seriously. I heard about 8 adults burst into laughter during this bit and one of them applauded. This market research was genuinely fascinating to me.
Yeah…none of the jokes I have for this are appropriate. I am going to go ahead and assume they just think kids eating fruit is funny cause kids hate fruit. Yeah. That sounds…Yeah…
So city kids in England can sit through old movies and stay quiet, who knew? But what of the film? What did I think?
God, it’s good.
It’s really, really good.
Ok, Ok, I’m not done. But I don’t even know where to begin…
How about me?
Ok Baloo. Easily my favourite character in the Disney canon so far. His sweet warmth just radiates off the screen and you just want to grab a beer with him. Voiced by the wonderful Phil Harris, his arc of ‘Care free character learns responsibility’ is hardly a fresh idea but it works because Baloo is so easy to like and empathise with. Right from his quiet little ‘pitiful’ when a cross Mowgli tries to punch him, you are on his side from then on out. He quickly grows attached to the Man Cub and with a ‘You’re all right kid!’ we are off.
The film was doing well up until his arrival, the jungle is lush but not distractingly so, Mowgli’s departure from his family is very matter of fact and refreshingly unsentimental and the stakes have been clearly set up as have the characters of Mowgli and Bagheera. It is all good but the arrival of Baloo 21 minutes in with an affable ‘doobedy-doobedy-doo’ takes it from ‘fair enough’ to ‘Yes! More time in this world please!’
As if the delightful, cool, chill Baloo wasn’t gift enough he comes with the brilliantly witty, well written and catchy ‘Bare Necessities’ This is the one song that remained in the film that was written by Terry Gilkyson and it was subsequently nominated for an Oscar although lost to a song from an inferior animal musical. (10 points if you can say what it was without looking it up) Pushing past the eternal subjective disappointment that is the Academy Awards, read the following lyrics and try not to smile:
Now when you pick a pawpaw
Or a prickly pear
And you prick a raw paw
Next time beware
Don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw
When you pick a pear
Try to use the claw
But you don’t need to use the claw
When you pick a pear of the big pawpaw…
I love this so much and it is delivered brilliantly too. Baloo might be content to spend his life winging it, but it means he ain’t a slouch when it comes to lyrical improv. Brava Baloo. Oh and Gilkyson.
I will skip my favourite Baloo moment for now and fast forward to the moment where he realises why ‘Ol’ Baggy’ is so keen to hustle ‘Little Britches’ (How can you not love him?) out of the jungle. When it dawns on him that Mowgli will most likely die if he remains where he is, his pain at having to disappoint his clueless young pal (Rather unsubtly Baloo tries to talk to Mowgli while the boy is happily singing about how he is going to live in the jungle forever and ever and ever and ever…) is conveyed really beautifully.
My only complaint about the scene is they play sad music over it to remind me it is sad that Mowgli feels crushed that Baloo is suddenly acting like an adult and Baloo feels awful about it too: The musical sting is not needed at all. We all remember that sinking feeling as a child when we realised the person we thought was on our side is actually just another boring grown up. And, as an adult, it is gut wrenching watching Baloo back peddle furiously after realising that playing the ‘cool parent’ has endangered his buddy. Oh yes. Been there too. There is even my second biggest laugh from the film in this scene when Mowgli accuses Baloo of being just like Baggy and Baloo immediately stops feeling bad and bristles: ‘That’s going too far!’
Ah poor Baggy. Sure I prefer Baloo. Hell, everybody prefers Baloo. But Baggy is another great character despite his eternal martyr act: By my count he throws his paws up and walks away from helping Mowgli at least 3 times…But never goes very far so he can always rush back to help. He likes to feel important. However it is easy to empathise with his frustration and I love his horror at Baloo’s ‘wisdom,’ his reaction to the Elephants, the Snake, the Monkeys…Everything. He may be a self righteous mofo, but his eye rolling makes him solid comedic fodder.
Mowgli himself is a mixed bag in that he is essentially a damsel in distress, being passed from pillar to post at any given moment. However I will give him a pass because this is really Baloo and Baggy’s story: The Disney version of The Jungle Book is about parenting and the struggle of keeping your child safe, trying to teach them and letting them go. I also love that Baloo and Baggy clearly have a history prior to this film, possibly involving Shere Khan. Disney, why all the sequels? Let’s get our jungle prequel on! Make it happen!
Also, I really like the kid like quality Mowgli has of copying those he admires. He desperately wants an identity and having departed his pack, is constantly on the look out for a new one. He tries being an elephant, a bear, a monkey, a bird…Unlike the criminally bland Arthur in ‘Sword in the Stone’ whose metamorphisms don’t serve the story at all, Mowgli is clearly trying to prove he belongs somewhere, anywhere and his enthusiasm for this task makes him more appealing as a result.
Why stop at the core gang? There are so many great characters to enjoy. Shere Khan is built up for a long time before he finally makes his entrance nearly 48 minutes in, stalking Bambi’s Mum’s Sister or whatever. Wait, do you get Deer in the jungle? Anyways, I love the choice to make him a dignified, elegant English gent rather than a po faced stalker type. He continues the run of top class Disney villains for the most part (My problems with him lie in the next section) and he wins many bonus points for his bored dispatch of Kaa and his attempts to hypnotise him: ‘No I can’t be bothered with that, I’ve no time for that sort of nonsense.’ Ice cold professional.
Well, he must be doing something right seeing as his first appearance caused one little girl to shout out ‘I’m scared!’ and be escorted from the cinema. She kept needing to leave whenever he came on, leading her clearly put out Father to the desperate act of abandoning his distressed child to watch the finale from the exit.
The other supporting characters are mostly very good, as if we didn’t have enough awesome, hell even their cute character is actually cute! Even my critter hating heart was melted by the baby elephant’s terrible attempt at joining in the trumpeting, and his cutesy mispronunciation of army terminology. Yes. The elephants are the military, much to the annoyance of those around them. They are pretty good fun, especially the awesome touch of having the screen shake when they first arrive. There is Kaa the villainous snake who never quite lands his prey despite his hypnotic abilities and who invariably ends up having his tail mistreated in several grizzly misunderstandings of snake biology. There are the Barbershop Quartet vultures, who were infamously supposed to be played by The Beatles only for Lennon to veto the idea. Their loop of ‘So what do you wanna do?’ ‘I don’t know, what do you want to do?’ nails the problem of planning social activities with those you spend too much time with. I enjoy all the supporting gang to varying degrees but none more so than King Louie…
Ah yes King Louie. Now let’s be clear: Look back over my reviews of ‘Peter Pan.’ ‘Dumbo.’ ‘Lady and the Tramp.’ When Disney climb aboard the Racist Express I call them on it. So when I say that I don’t see it here, I am not being defensive because I love the scene. I just…don’t see it. I think you can interpret it that way sure and if you do I am not saying you are wrong, but unlike with the explicit Jim Crow racial stereotype in ‘Dumbo’ I don’t feel this song or the characterisation of Louie is targeting a vulnerable minority group or providing social commentary. Louis Prima is an Italian American jazz singer whose voice and personality really suits the direction they went with in this musical number. There could be more to it than that. I can’t speak for Kipling’s intention with the characters in the book (This is the man who wrote ‘The White Man’s Burden’ sooo…) but considering the script writers were forbidden from reading the text, they couldn’t really be influenced by any agenda he had. I would welcome counter opinions to my perspective, as long as they don’t boil down to ‘Are you blind?’ I can see HOW you can view the song as racist, I just don’t think it is. Sometimes an orangutan is just an orangutan, no?
So with that out of the way, watching King Louie’s scene, where he tries to convince Mowgli to teach him the secret of making fire leading to the song ‘I Wanna be Like You,’ on the big screen has been a clear highlight of this whole wacky adventure so far. The Sherman Brothers, whose music let me down so badly in ‘Sword in the Stone’ really delivered something special here: It is just a wonderfully enjoyable, irresistible number. It has endured as a swing standard for a reason and the Disney version is just glorious. My face hurt from smiling. Honestly. Life was damn good for those few minutes.
Possibly my favourite moment in any Disney film so far can be summed up in five words: ‘I’m gone man, solid gone’ Just the image of this bear getting distracted by the groovy beats and engaging in a scat off with a sworn enemy (who looks delighted to have a friend) while dressed in a pretty terrible disguise is just all kinds of wonderful. Listen to the way Prima and Harris play together and they weren’t even in the same room when they recorded it! The production builds brilliantly to that last wallop of a chorus and as soon as it ended I wanted it to come back. One more time, indeed.
Without hesitation, I name ‘The Jungle Book’ the best musical Disney had produced so far (I suspect it won’t have any competition until the renaissance period) as every song is a winner, with not a clanger in sight. Oh except…No. Not here. Not yet.
The music is even something of a character itself, whether Kaa is making sounds like an accordion when he scrambles away injured and put out, or Baloo staggering around sounds like a bass…These little touches really make up for anything that has been lost in the cheaper production values that often went hand in hand with 60’s Disney.
If it is not clear from my ramblings yet, I feel Disney’s decision to make this film light and funny was a good one. Having read the book the film is based on I could see how the tonal departure could piss off those who wanted to see the brutal reality of jungle life realised via the most ambitious animation studio of all time. Instead what they got is Harris and co being hilarious and charming for an hour and a half. But…They do a good job making it all matter. The film has heart without being schmaltzy, it is entertaining without being pandering and it still highlights how scary life can be when you stand out from the crowd. It doesn’t go full ‘oh it is just for kids, who cares?’ it commits to telling a different kind of story than the one Kipling wrote but it commits. And how. I challenge you to come away from ‘The Jungle Book’ having enjoyed nothing.
What a film! This next bit should be easy…No major complaints so…Wait…What’s that last 5 minutes of film? What? I didn’t quite catch that? You want to ruin everything, you say? Well if you must…
What Doesn’t Work:
So the tiger has been defeated, Mowgli has no further reason to fear the jungle and everyone is happy and then…
Oh Disney. Why?
I had completely 100% forgotten that this was the ending. So I wasn’t expecting it. I should remind you: I was in a cinema. So I had to try my best to hold in my hysterical laughter. Yes. Hysterical. My sides hurts and tears were running down my cheeks.
Perhaps not all that surprisingly, the film ends with Mowgli leaving the jungle anyway. Because he sees another human for the first time. A girl human. This moment could have been played in a touching way. Mowgli finding his true place in the world, leaving his friends without another thought. But…This is the scene in a nutshell:
Girl: I like collecting water…LA LA LA LA WATER LA LA…I’m going to cook and have babies like my Mum…LA LA LA LA WATER LA LA LA…I’m not scared by random boy spying on me….LA LA LA LA HELLO BOY LA LA WATER LA…I have hair and I collect water…LA LA LA LA LA LA…Who needs personality when you have earrings and water…LA LA WATER…WATER…LA LA WATER! WATER! WATER!
Mowgli: Cool. You seem suitably fleshed out for me to give up everything I have ever known. You collect water. I’m in love. Peace out boys.
‘She’s barely an 8, Brah’
Seriously. It is baaad…Were we not past this shit in the 60’s? You might argue that love interests in Disney films (men and women alike) are subjected to this sort of watered down (WATER!) bullshit and it is true. But even by Disney standards she is a piss poor substitute for a happy ending and she is the only girl in the story (Pedantics: One female elephant with one scene, Mama Wolf, no lines that I can recall) No name, no motivation, she doesn’t even fucking blink when a jungle born Man Cub hurtles from a tree towards her with an enthusiastic grin on his face and possibly his first boner. All that water carrying has gone to her brain and dulled the part of her that gives a fuck.
‘What is your name?’
‘I fetch the water!’
‘Yeah I know but-‘
The lyrics to her song about how men hunt and women cook and how all she can hope for out of life is a handsome husband and a daughter with equal enthusiasm for fetching WATER, the fact that when she drops her water pot thing Baloo growls ‘she did that on purpose!’ because women, amiright, and she is all of 12 years old and being cast as some sort of seductress…Just…Up with this I will not put, Disney. This is bullshit. And you were so close to the end of the film…So close…
Having said that, it sent me out the cinema laughing and me and my two wonderful friends spent the rest of the day occasionally crossing our eyes and bellowing: ‘I MUST GO AND FETCH THE WATER!’ so that was fun. It doesn’t ruin the film for me. At all. But it sucks the big one as a finale.
Speaking of the finale, I have a problem with how easily the Shere Khan plot is wrapped up. Unless you have watched the movie as recently as I have you can’t understand how much the character is built up prior to his arrival in the story. While he is cool and has a pleasant bass singing voice he comes up just short of true Disney villain greatness because he fails to do anyone much harm. He is like that kid who challenges you to a fight, saying they have been in loads of fights and are going to knock you out, and then you shove them and they fall over crying, shouting: ‘Get my Mum!’
Sorry Kelly from Primary School. You literally asked for it though.
Even Baloo expresses surprise at how easily resolved the big problem is. Hell, Baloo had a black eye after a run in with some monkeys earlier in the film but a full on Tiger battles leaves him unscathed, despite a fakeout death scene complete with funeral music.
In the book it takes a heard of buffalo to wipe Shere Khan out. Here, it just takes a small boy tying a fiery stick to his tail. I am not saying I could carry out my murders while on fire, but…Ok I am nitpicking but it is just a bit underwhelming.
Although his voice…seriously…It makes me sad he didn’t get a villain song:
It seems petty to complain about the characters in a film with such an embarrassment of riches but personally I feel the elephants get a little too much screen time. To be fair to them, their second scene comes during a lull in the pace, post ‘I Wanna be Like You,’ but they don’t really add much to the story. J. Pat O’ Malley plays basically the same role (and rank) as he did in 101 Dalmatians: A blustering colonel. It is not entertaining enough to distract from how lazy the characterisation is. A big problem I have with 60’s/70’s Disney is uninspired casting and while O’ Malley doesn’t do a bad job, I found myself getting restless.
But to be honest any moments where I wasn’t having fun or any characters that I wasn’t crazy about only suffered in comparison to all the many, many characters/scenes that I adored. Most of what I have criticised here would be welcome additions in lesser Disney films. Except for that ending. Fuck that ending. Damn it. It was nearly perfect…
Stick that in your water pot and smoke it.
Conclusion: Despite a hilariously clumsy ending and some largely inoffensive but non essential pachyderm filler, this film is a joy. ‘The Jungle Book’ is funny, warm, brilliantly pitched and contains some of the best songs/characters/moments in cinema history. Sure the darker version could have been good too, but a world without Walt’s vision would be just that little bit duller…
He might have been crazy but…No that’s it.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 2
Kaa’s entrance and sinister shtick is potentially pretty scary, although personally I feel the impact is undermined by the speech impediment humour, and the moment Shere Khan makes his move. Even though he can only inflict superficial damage (I paid for BLOOD!) I don’t doubt at least a couple of the kids in the cinema struggled to sleep thanks to him…
And that’s why Grandma never came back from the zoo…
While there is a case to be made for pretty much every song, excluding one (WATER!) there is still only one winner for me…I have had it on loop while writing this and I am still not bored:
One more time!
Next Time: J’accuse the Butler! Sacrebleu!…The Aristocats (1970)