Although its slapstick comedy, upbeat songs and polished animation made it one of the studio’s most successful postwar features, “The Jungle Book” (opening today in re-release, citywide) is best known as the last animated film Walt Disney personally supervised. It premiered in October, 1967, 10 months after his death.
Disney’s artists took little more than the names of the characters from Rudyard Kipling’s original stories. They transformed Mowgli (voice by Bruce Reitherman), the noble savage reared by wolves, into a rambunctious, all-American boy. The ancient, subtle Kaa (Sterling Holloway) became a sibilant buffoon with psychedelic eyes. Baloo, the dignified old bear who taught the Law of the Jungle to the animal cubs, was turned into a happy-go-lucky “two-bit jungle bum” with a shape like a half-filled Hefty bag and a voice by Phil Harris.
“The Jungle Book” is not so much a great animated film as a film with great animated sequences. In “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Pinocchio,” every scene advances the story; in “Jungle Book,” the story is reduced to a vehicle for characters’ comic antics.
Baloo’s loose-limbed movements, coupled with Harris’ vocal performance--especially his jazzy rendition of “The Bare Necessities"--are as entertaining today as they were 23 years ago. His jitterbug duet to “I Wanna Be Like You” with the frenetic orangutan, King Louie (Louie Prima), whose hands, arms, legs and eyes swivel in all directions, ranks among the funniest sequences in Disney animation.
“Jungle Book” was one of the last films made by the crew Disney had begun assembling in the ‘30s, and the artists were clearly near the height of their talents. They make Kaa such an engaging presence, the audience doesn’t realize that animating him presented enormous difficulties: A snake has no hands, arms or shoulders to use in gestures. (The artists cleverly solved the problem by using sections of his body to suggest limbs.) The affectionate relationship that develops between Mowgli and Baloo is delineated visually, through gestures, body language and expressions.
The warmth of these characters contrasts effectively with the icy terror of Shere Khan, the tiger, (George Sanders, in one of his last roles). Mowgli’s battle with Shere Khan, is a dramatic, David-and-Goliath confrontation, with a passel of shabby, Beatles-esque vultures providing comic relief. The film peters out after the battle: Bewitched by a lovely Indian girl, Mowgli gives up his jungle existence for life in the man-village too easily. The audience has seen the depth of his feelings for his animal friends, yet he casually abandons them.
Although it lacks the emotional depth of “Bambi” and the visual opulence of “Fantasia,” “The Jungle Book” remains a high-spirited romp that will delight children--and parents weary of action films with body counts that exceed their box-office grosses. Just don’t go expecting Kipling.