Sunday, February 24, 2013

Disney Canon: The Jungle Book

And so, in our exploration of the Disney canon, we have reached the end of the period known as the Silver Age of Disney Animation. The Golden Age was, of course, that five-film period between Snow White and Bambi, after which Disney's cinematic ambitious were stopped by financial disappointments and World War II. The War made way for the low-budget "package film" period, which ended in 1950 when peace time let Disney get ambitious once again. The huge success of Cinderella ushered the silver age, which gave us a lot beloved classics that by and large aren't as well regarded as the Golden Age films, but are considered classics non the least.

The last of these classics was The Jungle Book. It was adapted from the Rudyard Kipling novels, something that in this case basically means Disney payed for the copyright. If you thought Disney wasn't faithful enough to the original stories of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, then you won't be pleased with what he did with The Jungle Book. Legend has it that Disney approached the men in charge of the story with Kipling's book and told them: "The first I want you to do is not to read it". The Sword in the Stone had a very lukewarm response and there was talk about the "lower quality" of Disney's new xerox inking technique, which he started using in One Hundred and One Dalmatians. This time, Disney wanted to make a winner no matter what and it seems like the best way to achieve this was to take Kipling's colorful characters and make a fun, exciting movie. The dark and dangerous qualities of Kipling's text would be avoided if needed.

That's precisely what we got in The Jungle Book. The basics of Kipling's story are intact, in that we open the movie with panther Bagheera finding a baby human Mowgli and bringing him to the wolf pack until he is old enough that the wolf council decides he should be taken to the human village, even if he doesn't want to leave the jungle, to avoid him being digested by human-hating tiger Shere-Khan. From there, the movie becomes a kind of episodic "road movie" and, presumably, just what Disney wanted. Bagheera and Mowgli are off to take him to his new home and on the way run into a series of misadventures. They run into an elephant battalion, a hypnotizing python and Baloo the bear, who befriends Mowgli and doesn't want him to go away into his human life.

Numerous specifics about the meetings with these different characters and their roles in the story differ substantially from Kipling's original. The characters of Kaa the python, for example, is turned into a villain by Disney, and Baloo adopts a much more comedic and friendly personality than the one he has in the book. Standing by his purpose, Disney modified whatever he saw necessary, and I wouldn't argue he was wrong, since he turned Baloo into the film's most beloved character. 

He took a similar approach to the music of the film. The original song composer for the film was Terry Gilkynson, who wrote several songs that were heavily inspired by the book. Alas, Disney found them to be too dark and ordered the Sherman Brothers to write the remaining songs for the movie (One Gilkynson song remained in the movie, the Oscar-nominated "The Bear Necessities" which is linked in the video above). The scoring for the songs, which was influenced by indian music in Gilkynson's songs, turned towards a jazzy but friendly style. Not too jazzy, remember we're talking about Walt Disney here, but with enough flavor as to impress the audience. Take for instance the following number, sung by Louie Prima. 

All the episodes Bagheera and Mowgli get into work well to make one very amusing and entertaining film that, somewhat sadly, ends up feeling very episodic and lacking in momentum. One of the basic problems for that is the delayed introduction of the villainous Shere-Khan. Sure, we hear a little about him at the beginning of the movie, but he is used more as a plot device to set Mowgli and Bagheera on their journey than anything else. Not that we didn't know from the minute he is mentioned that he would face off Mowgli, but there is no build up towards the moment he finally shows up and the ensuing final confrontation.

This ends up being just a minor flaw, however, since the movie does move along and proves itself to be a very good time for those watching it. Audiences back in 1967 agreed and made The Jungle Book the most successful movie of that year. From that point on, it was regarded as Disney's final success. Disney passed away months before the premiere, so maybe there was a lot of sentimentality surrounding The Jungle Book's release. In any case, the test of time seems to stand by the public's reaction, as the film is still regarded as one of Disney's classics. I guess old Walt knew what it took for one of his film's to be successful. The ambitions he had in The Jungle Book are far more modest and practical than the artistic goals he set himself with Snow White, Pinocchio or Fantasia, but he did achieve what he set out to do with The Jungle Book; a movie made to entertain that keeps on entertaining.

Next Time: Well, it's time for the Disney Canon to go on another hiatus. Wait for the "Disney Shorts" post to know exactly when it will be back.         

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