With outstanding voice talents, memorable songs, and excellent artwork, this 1967 adaptation of Kipling's "The Jungle Book," inspired by the Mowgli stories, long ago took its place as one of Disney's minor animated-musical classics. It didn't hurt that Uncle Walt himself supervised the project, the last, completed animation on which he would work. If your only acquaintance with "The Jungle Book" is through Disney's dreary 2003 sequel, you owe it to yourself to watch the original, especially in this newly remastered, two-disc Platinum Edition.
You probably remember the plot: A panther named Bagheera finds a human child, Mowgli, left in the jungles of India and gets a family of wolves to rear him. Then, when Mowgli becomes older, Bagheera decides he needs to get the boy (or "Man Cub," as the animals know him) to a human village. It's for his own protection against the return of Shere Khan, an evil tiger who hates humans and would kill the child. On the way to a village, Mowgli befriends a warmhearted bear named Baloo, meets various other rain-forest critters, and then eventually reaches the village, although not without resistance, since he would prefer to live his life unrestrained.
Basically, as Disney conceives it, it's a trek story that tries to create a thread that will tie the many Kipling stories together. Mowgli goes from one place to another, and we get to see his adventures along the way. I wish I could say that it was an entirely successful trek story, but, alas, it doesn't always grab you and pull you in as it should. Instead, it tends to lose some energy along the way by being too disjointed and never having much of a central conflict to link everything together. It is also a bit too glib, too happy-go-lucky, to develop much tension, even with the menacing presence of Shere Khan lurking in the shadows. Then, too, while the peripheral characters are wonderful, the main character of Mowgli is a rather flat, prosaic little fellow. Not that it's Mowgli's fault, mind you; he's a pretty normal little kid. But being surrounded as he is by so many much-more vivid personalities only serves to point up how ordinary he can be. Yes, the movie touches upon the inner turmoil in Mowgli's wanting to live free in the jungle and his animal friends wanting him to return to civilization, but the film really doesn't play up that psychological angle as much as you'd think.
Fortunately, the strengths outweigh the faults in "The Jungle Book." First, there's the look of the film, which includes some of the best, most-detailed watercolor backgrounds the Disney animators ever devised. The actual animals and Mowgli may be drawn a bit simplistically, but one hardly notices.
Second, there are the character voices--a cast to die for. Young Bruce Reitherman, the son of the film's director, Wolfgang Reitherman, plays Mowgli, and he's fine in the role. But he's upstaged by the old pros who surround him. Sebastian Cabot plays the panther Bagheera; jazz great Louis Prima plays King Louie of the Apes; George Sanders is suavely supreme as the nefarious tiger Shere Khan; Sterling Holloway is all sweet hisses as the devious snake Kaa; J. Pat O'Malley is hearty as Col. Hathi, the elephant, and Buzzie, a cockney vulture (part of a quartet of buzzards patterned clearly on the Beatles); Clint Howard is appropriately juvenile-sounding as a young elephant; and Verna Felton is appropriately commanding as the Colonel's wife, Winifred.
But it is Phil Harris as Baloo, the big, dumb, lovable doofus of a bear who steals the show. He is exactly what Disney wanted to give the movie heart. Harris's Baloo is a delightful loafer who takes an instant liking to Mowgli and wants more than anything to adopt him and raise him as a bear. He's really quite sweet and will do anything to protect the boy.
Third, there are the songs and music by Robert and Richard Sherman (who did so many of the famous tunes in Disney pictures) and Terry Gilkyson (who did the Oscar-nominated "Bare Necessities"). In order of their appearance, we hear "Col. Hathi's March," sung by a jungle patrol of elephants; "The Bare Necessities" mentioned above, sung by Baloo; "I Want to Be Like You," sung by King Louie; "Trust in Me," sung by Kaa; "That's What Friends Are For," sung by the Buzzard quartet in barbershop style; and the concluding "My Own Home," which speaks for itself.
Disney's "The Jungle Book" is an amiable, easygoing tale, long on charm if short on edge, excitement, or suspense. However, the characters, music, and animation more than make up for any shortcomings, and the result is pleasant entertainment for everyone in the family.
Disney engineers restored and digitally remastered the film to look like new, and one cannot fault any part of it. The picture size fills out a widescreen TV, and the high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer is clear and clean. Colors are bright, and there is nary an age spot in sight. If the filmmaker had made the movie yesterday, it wouldn't have looked any better. I have to admit that the newer, 2003 sequel looks a bit crisper, but that doesn't mean it looks better.
The audio people refurbished the sound in a Dolby Digital 5.1 Home Theater mix that sounds as though they could have recorded it yesterday, too. There isn't a lot of rear-channel action, but everything else is beyond criticism. We get a wide front-channel stereo spread; a smooth, well-balanced overall frequency response; a solid bass; and a strong dynamic impact. Where would Disney music be without good sound?
We've come not only to expect good picture and sound on one of Disney's Platinum Editions, but a good bundle of extras as well. This Platinum Edition is no exception. It's one of those sets where the movie is little more than an hour and a quarter, but it will take you a week and a half to watch all the bonus items.
Disc one of this two-disc set contains the main feature; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English captions for the hearing impaired; Sneak Peeks at nine other Disney and Pixar productions; an index of contents; twenty-four scene selections; and an informational booklet insert and chapter guide.
In addition, we get an audio commentary from one of the movie's stars, Bruce Reitherman (Mowgli), one of the film's composers, Richard Sherman, and one of Disney's current animators, Andreas Deja. If that isn't enough, from time to time we also get to hear some audio clips from the original creative team who made the film. After that, there is a deleted scene, "The Lost Character: Rocky the Rhino," six-and-a-half minutes in rough sketches; a "Disney Song Selection," thirteen minutes comprising four selections from the movie that you can play with optional on-screen lyrics. Following that are seven deleted songs, twenty-one minutes' worth in audio only and monaural. Then there is a three-minute music video, "I Wan'na Be Like You," performed by one of Disney's kid bands, the Jonas Brothers, in rock style. I hated it. And, finally, on disc one there is a plug for the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, which helps ensure "a future for wildlife and wild places."
Disc two contains the rest of the extras. Things begin with the kind of documentary that Disney does so well. It's a forty-six-minute affair called "The Bare Necessities: The Making of The Jungle Book," divided into five chapters with a "Play All" feature. In it, Disney says he wanted the film to be happy and have heart. I think he succeeded. Next is the fifteen-minute "Disney's Kipling: Walt's Magic Touch on a Literary Classic," a segment on adapting the book to the screen. For good or for bad, I'd say most people in the world know some literary classics through Disney movies rather than having read the original sources. It's better than nothing. After that is "The Lure of The Jungle Book," nine minutes about the film's influence on subsequent animators; "Mowgli's Return to the Wild," five minutes on how actor Bruce Reitherman became a wildlife filmmaker; "Frank & Ollie," a four-minute vintage piece with Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of the film's original animators talking about character animation; and six separate still-frame art galleries.
Lastly, for the kids there are two games, "Baloo's Virtual Swingin' Jungle Cruise" and "The Jungle Book Fun With Language Games," followed by DisneyPedia: "Junglemania!" A double slim-line case encloses the two discs, the case further enclosed by a handsomely embossed, high-gloss slipcover. Disney's Platinum Editions are always class acts.
"The Jungle Book" isn't quite in the top echelon of Disney favorites like "Snow White," "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "The Lion King," "Aladdin," or "The Little Mermaid." But it's close, thanks largely to the voice talents, the music, and, of course, the animation. It's still a charmer.