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Animated April: The Jungle Book (1967)

In honor of our annual animation program and the 3D cartoons that will run at the Wexner Center before the show, we spend April looking at animated feature films.



RODNEY BOWCOCKThe Jungle Book (1967) is primarily the story of Mowgli, a boy that was abandoned and raised by a family of wolves in the jungles of India.  Upon news that Shere Khan, a vicious tiger is returning to the area, Bagheera, a panther, takes it upon himself to deliver Mowgli to a “man village” where he will be safe from the tiger.  The two encounter a series of misadventures, while meeting a cast of characters in their travels, primarily Baloo (Phil Harris), a gregarious bear that takes a liking to Mowgli and sympathizes with the boy’s desire to stay in the jungle, Kaa, a snake portrayed beautifully by Sterling Holloway and King Louie, an orangutang caricatured and voiced by Louis Prima.


SAMANTHA GLASSER:  Author Rudyard Kipling was born in India and grew up there. He went to boarding school in England, but returned home after college, working as a writer for several newspapers. He briefly traveled to Japan to write about their customs and in 1907 received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his efforts. He published many short stories during his career, often set in the far east, including The Man Who Would Be King in 1888, Gunga Din in 1890, and The Jungle Book in 1894. His novels Captain’s Courageous (1897) and Kim (1901) were also adapted to the screen. The Jungle Book has been adapted to film many times, including a live action rendition starring Sabu in 1942.


RB:  I remember being very young and seeing the Sabu version of the story and being disappointed that it lacked the light tone and songs of the Disney film.  Disney hasn’t exactly ever been known for accurately adapting source material, and this is no exception.  The Sabu film treats the source material with a little more respect, but that’s not what I was looking for at 7 or 8.  I was barely willing to watch anything that wasn’t animated or Muppets at that point anyway.  Walt reportedly handed the book to his writing team and instructed them NOT to read the book when storyboarding and outlining the film; this shows if you are even slightly familiar with Kipling’s writings.  I didn’t care then, and I don’t much care now.

 

SG:  When I was a kid, I didn’t care much for The Jungle Book. I didn’t have the impulse to be wild outside; I wanted to be a fancy princess in a castle, so I didn’t relate to Mowgli. The music, however, did have an impact. “The Bare Necessities” is a catchy teaching song that can be heard outside of the context of the film. Phil Harris is best known today for his role in the Jack Benny Show, but he started his career in the 20s as a bandleader. My kids and I enjoy his novelty hit “The Thing.” “I Want To Be Like You,” is raucous and jazzy, an earworm that leaps off the screen. Louis Prima was a bandleader, not an actor in the traditional sense, but his thousand-watt personality comes through in his voice, making his performance as King Louie the star of the show.


RB:  I’m pretty sure that I was at least present for this film in all of its’ reissues.  I’m told that a drive-in screening during the 1978-1979 reissue was the first movie that I was ever taken to.  I distinctly recall the 1985 and 1990 reissues, and had a read-along record of this that was essential in my learning how to read.  Even rewatching the film last week, there were stretches of dialog that I knew verbatim from that book and record set.  The songs were pretty much part of the soundtrack of my pre-school years, and in a few years, I’d discover The Jack Benny Program, which, as you mention is where most 1967 audiences would still remember Phil Harris from, even though he left that show in 1952.  At that time, I wasn’t able to hear Harris’ voice without picturing Baloo.  Now, it’s difficult to hear Harris as Baloo without picturing him as he actually looked.  Harris was apprehensive about accepting this role until he was told that he could play the part as he saw fit.  Much of his dialogue was improvised during recording sessions, which, contrary to what we were told when watching The Reluctant Dragon, was possible because the soundtrack of the film was recorded before any actual animation had begun.


SG:  It is effective that the filmmakers utilized character actors to bring the animated characters to life because it imbues an unforgettable personality in them that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Sterling Holloway’s sleepy but distinctive voice as Kaa the snake lulls us but never bores us. J. Pat O’Malley as the Colonel sounds very much like John McIver, a blustering comic elephant. George Sanders brings sophisticated cunning to Shere Kahn. According to IMDB, John Wayne was sought to play Baloo so Harris intentionally patterned his voice work after Wayne’s slow cadence. These elements appeal to the adult viewers, and the young characters like Mowgli and the little elephant (voiced by Clint Howard) appeal to the kids. Chad Stuart of the group Chad and Jeremy plays one of the vultures. Was this casting an attempt to appeal to the adolescents of the era?


RB:  Disney always used top notch voice talent, but this ranks among the first times that the characters were SO based upon the celebrity voices (Ed Wynn in Alice In Wonderland comes to mind as a notable exception to this statement).  This doubtlessly endeared the film to adults who were familiar with so many of these veteran actors, a trait that has ramped up full tilt until today when the concept of someone that is strictly a voice actor in an animated film is unheard of.  Every character of any consequence is portrayed by an A-list celebrity, billed higher than the animators that actually bring these films to life.


SG:  This film was made decades before The Lion King, but I saw parallels in the way the cats' mouths were animated.


RB:  There is some parallel there for sure, and savvy viewers will also notice similarities to this film and 1970’s Disney output like The Aristocats and Robin Hood.  Facing financial pressures to stay within budget again, Robin Hood relied on a lot of reused animation from The Jungle Book, and both films cast Phil Harris in leading roles attempting to recapture the magic of this film.


SG:  This movie was made while the studio was working on The Aristocats, which began as a live-action story but Disney himself decided it would make a better animated film. The Jungle Book cost $4 million to make and premiered at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on October 18th. Part of the proceeds from ticket sales went to acquisition more animals for the Los Angeles Zoo Association.


The press book reveals just how adept Disney had become at marketing their products with merchandise by 1967. They offered Jungle Book themed pails and shovel sets, Pez dispensers, tissue boxes, kids’ dresses, jewelry, stuffed animals, puzzles, View Master reels, cereal box tie-ins, and more.


RB:  The pressbook is fascinating to look through and see the well-oiled promotion machine at work.  Not only is there a plethora of merchandise (material advertising The Jungle Book and Peanuts merchandise were the hottest gifts for kids during the 1967 Christmas season), but there are dozens of newspaper articles designed to be planted as actual articles in local papers, cleverly disguising the fact that they are essentially ads for local theaters.


SG:  Gregory Peck lobbied for The Jungle Book to be nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. Only the song “The Bare Necessities” was nominated.


RB:  Despite the Oscars slight, reviews were overwhelmingly positive, many seemed to have been cut and pasted out of the aforementioned pressbook, but others seemed unwilling to say anything bad about a Disney product so soon after Walt’s death the previous year.  Time Magazine felt that, “the reasons for its success lie in Disney’s own unfettered animal spirts, his ability to be childlike without being childish…it is the happiest possible way to remember Walt Disney."


SG:  The story is relatively simple, but the music is outstanding. Mowgli is the least interesting character in the film; since he is the protagonist, I wish I cared more about his plight. Three stars and a half stars.


RB:  When I was very young, I remember seeing a book in the library that showed examples of how character design for Disney’s main classic characters had changed through the years.  This completely fascinated me and kickstarted an obsession with classic Disney.  Doubtlessly the first book about movies that I ever got was Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson book The Illusion of Life:  Disney Animation, which I remember being so enamored with that my parents limited the amount of time a day that I was permitted to read the book.  Any Disney film in a theater was a cause for celebration and was something of an event for me, and fortunately I got to see many of them.  The Jungle Book is a four-star nostalgia blast for me.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, maybe just a little bit less than I ever did.  But still an awful lot.

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