Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Jungle Book (1967) - The Bear Necessities

The Jungle Book: Corniest Adaptation of Serious Source Material Ever

Jungle Book DVD cover
Walt Disney's animation department was getting restless. "The Sword in the Stone" (1963) (which coincidentally turned out to be the last animated film released during Walt Disney's lifetime) had been disappointing. Though it had turned into a mild financial and critical success in its look at the classic legend of King Arthur, which had recently gained public interest due to "Camelot" running on Broadway, that film hadn't enabled the studio to recapture the glory days of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Cinderella." Everybody had loved the still-recent "Sleeping Beauty," but even that film had lost money and sent the studio to its first annual loss in a decade. If this kept up, Walt might decide to scale back the animation department and focus exclusively on that wacky theme park he was planning in the swamps of Florida.
Bagheera in Disney's The Jungle Book
Just call me bright eyes
Finally, one of the unofficial leaders of the department, veteran story man Bill Peet, decided enough,  He had joined the staff while it was making "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and knew the animation guys' capabilities. He cornered Walt Disney and just let it rip. He complained that while drawing people was all well and good, live actors simply did it better. Peet suggested instead that they do Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book," claiming "we can do more interesting animal characters." That proved to be perhaps the most insightful comment in the history of animation.
Mowgli and Baloo go swimming in Disney's The Jungle Book
Let's go swimming!
Walt thought about it and agreed; after all, even though they had quarrelled often, most memorably about the dancing/romance scenes in"Sleeping Beauty," Peet was a brilliant writer who had developed both "One Hundred and One Dalmations" and "The Sword in the Stone" practically on his own. He let Peet start work on the story, and, reviewing the ideas later, gradually warmed to the concept. As time went on, he became more and more involved until he basically took the project over himself.
Baloo, Bagheera and Mowgli in Disney's The Jungle Book
Now, Baloo, you block, Bagheera go for the sideline....
Walt was so excited that he recruited some of the top names in Hollywood to do the voices, and even designed some characters (the vultures) to resemble The Beatles in hopes the group would participate and maybe do a song or two. Unfortunately, the British rockers declined (John Lennon, it turned out, was not a fan) and instead did their own animated film, "Yellow Submarine." Walt shrugged and found a cheaper British rocker to take their place.
Baloo looking at Mowgli in Disney's The Jungle Book
Hey Mowgli, got any food?
One other problem loomed: how to tell the story in an entertaining way. Kipling was beloved and "The Jungle Book" remained popular, but it was not a fairy tale with a happy ending. In fact, it was a dark tale with a bleak outlook on life whose ending was, well, a downer. That may be how life is, but it wasn't the story that Disney wanted to tell. On the positive side, the tale revolved around a boy, Mowgli, but otherwise it was not very "kid-friendly." Walt wanted it be more cuddly, Peet refused, so Peet was out.
Baloo and Mowgli dancing as seen from the rear in Disney's The Jungle Book
It's just the oooomph bare necessity!
At this point, everybody in the studio became a book critic. Walt appointed to take over but told him regarding the book, "The first thing I want you to do is not read it." Clemmons did read it, but decided the tale was too disjointed. They then decided to simply make the tale character-driven, moving it further and further away from the source. This led them to add a few sympathetic characters - a girlfriend for Mowgli named Shanti and a "King of the Monkeys" named Louie - to spice things up. Animators were given authority to do entire scenes themselves rather than just individual characters in order to increase the interactions between the characters and give the story a warmer feel.
Baloo and Mowgli dancing as seen from the front in Disney's The Jungle Book
No, Mowgli, your LEFT foot
To make the story even brighter, they made it a musical with fun, cheery songs and even threw in some themes from fan favorites such as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Sleeping Beauty." Several classics emerged, such as Terry Gilkyson's "The Bare Necessities" (nominated for an Academy Award) and tunes by the popular Sherman Borthers (who had done the amazing songs for Disney in "Mary Poppins"). In essence, Walt took the basic grim "Jungle Book" concept and rewrote it himself in a laborious process that wound up making it fun and catchy in the way that he imagined audiences of the mid-20th Century would enjoy.
Shere Khan in Disney's The Jungle Book
Beware the wrath of Khan
The rest is history: "The Jungle Book" (1967), released shortly after Walt's death, became one of the studio's biggest hits and foreshadowed the crop of animal-themed animation features of the 21st Century. It is the tale of young orphan Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman, whose father Wolfgang Reitherman directed), who is found by black panther Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot).  Bagheera solicitously takes him to be raised by Adela the Indian Wolf (John Abbott, in a rare casting of a female voice by a man).
King Louis in Disney's The Jungle Book
I know I look goofy, but I like it!
When Mowgli comes of age, Bagheera decides that the boy would be safer with his own kind.  Despite Mowgli's protestations that he wants to stay, Bagheera takes him toward the local village. They have various adventures along the way, and Mowgli especially likes Baloo (Phil Harris), a fun-loving bear who promises to take care of him. King Louie (Louis Prima), though, kidnaps Mowgli in the mistaken belief that any human could teach him the secret to making fire. Fortunately, Baloo and Bagheera show up to save Mowgli before Louie finds out that Mowgli, having been raised by wolves, has no idea how to light a fire. Other dangers threaten, too, such as the man-eating Bengal tiger Shere Khan (George Sanders), and Baloo and Bagheera realize more than ever what they must do. When they reach the village, Mowgli refuses to stay, but then he sees the beautiful girl Shanti (Darlene Carr)....
Mowgli confronts Shere Khan in Disney's The Jungle Book
Walk softly and carry a BIG stick
The legacy of "The Jungle Book" lives on. Besides various remakes and video games, characters have appeared in television series ("Jungle Cubs"), in films such as "Aladdin and the King of Thieves," and been used by Greenpeace to raise public awareness about deforestation. As recently as 2003, DisneyToon Studios in Australia released the sequel "The Jungle Book 2," which continues Mowgli's adventures.
Mowgli riding on Bagheera's back in The Jungle Book
Mowgli riding Bagheera
If there is one Disney film in the 30-year gap between"Sleeping Beauty" and "The Little Mermaid" that should be in your movie collection, this is it. It was a cultural touchstone of the mid-1960s and one of the bright spots for younger children during that teenager-focused decade. Once you view "The Jungle Book," it will take a long, long time to get Mowgli and "The Bare Necessities" out of your head.

Below, Phil Harris sings "The Bare Necessities" from "The Jungle Book" as Baloo and Mowgli dance along:



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//PART 2