Friday, July 5, 2013

Barely Necessary, But Fun: Disney’s “The Jungle Book”

Disney’s Nineteenth Animated Feature – 1967
Verna Felton
The Jungle Book is a fun and lively feature, loosely adapted from the stories about “man cub” Mowgli from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. This film was the last one for Walt Disney himself, who passed away during its production. It also marks the swan song of voice artist Verna Felton, who provided the voice of Hathi the Elephant’s wife. Felton, who voiced Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, Flora in Sleeping Beauty, Aunt Sarah in Lady and the Tramp, and the Queen of Hearts in Alice In Wonderland, died shortly before the film’s release.

But as one light goes out, another candle is lit, because this film marks the first film featuring the voice of Phil Harris, who gives a memorable, often improvised performance as Baloo the Bear, predating the improvisations of Robin Williams in Aladdin. Harris would go on to loom large in Disney’s next two features, as O’Malley in The Artistocats and Little John in Robin Hood, providing his own safe, virtually patented version of cool.

These mop-topped, British vultures
just miss suggesting The Beatles.
Disney met Harris at a party and decided he’d be a great fit for his films. And he wasn’t wrong; he was just painfully outdated. Phil Harris had been plugging away since the forties as a performer on The Jack Benny Program (on both radio and television) as the “hipster” voice. He used to call Benny “Jackson” and use jazz slang like “solid” and “that’s real gone, man.” That character is transferred whole cloth to Baloo the Bear and while charming, it positions Disney as the last bastion against the counter-culture, refusing to acknowledge that the era of the jazz hipster and the beatnik was over. In The Jungle Book, characters use outdated slang, dance the jitterbug, and a quartet of mop-topped vultures ALMOST channel The Beatles if they didn’t sing barbershop style.

King Louis (voiced by Louis Prima)
swings with Mowgli.
That said, the film is not without its charms. The “man cub” Mowgli is found (one assumes) abandoned in the jungle by the panther Bagheera nicely voiced by Sebastian Cabot, whose proper English accent creates a nice foil for hipster Harris/Baloo. Bagheera decides to take pity on the baby and brings him to a family of wolves to be raised. Young Mowgli seems to be living an idyllic existence in the jungle, but the reappearance of tiger Shere Khan voiced with an expected sinister sneer by George Sanders convinces Bagheera that it’s time for Mowgli to leave for the human village for his own safety. It seems Shere Khan hates human beings that he sees as hunters. He won’t wait for Mowgli to grow up and turn into one. Mowgli doesn’t want to go to the “man village” and Bagheera challenges him to make it on his own. Enter Baloo the Bear, who takes an instant liking to the boy, promising to teach him everything he knows and save him from the man village. Baloo/Harris famously sings, “The Bare Necessities” which becomes a duet with Mowgli, charmingly voiced by Bruce Reitherman, who just so happened to be the son of the film’s director, Wolfgang Reitherman.

Mowgli meets his fate.
“Bare Necessities” is one of two memorable songs from this film; the other is “I Wan'na Be Like You” which is sung by another former hipster, Louis Prima as King Louis the orangutan. When Harris and Prima join forces in a scat challenge, it may as well be 1950 and you know for sure this film is happy being happily out of date. The final scene where Mowgli is charmed into the man village by an adorable young girl is reminiscent of the flirting scenes in Bambi. The little girl merely has to bat her eyes at Mowgli and he’s hooked. He even carries her water jug for her, shrugging his shoulders at his old pals Baloo and Bagheera as he starts his new life among the humans. Baloo and Bagheera don’t brood over it; they dance off into the forest, which provides their bare necessities and much more. This is a sweet film; a solid good/very good. And for grown-up students of animated film, it’s a “solid” peek at the last gasps of the fight against the counter-culture.

No comments:

Post a Comment