Tuesday, December 29, 2009

#407: The Jungle Book (1967)

Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Cast: Bruce Reitherman, Phil Harris & Sebastian Cabot

Mowgli was a boy brought up by a pack of wolves in the jungles of India, living peacefully among the animals until rumors begin that he is sought to be killed by the tiger Shere Khan. The panther Bagheera attempts to return Mowgli to the human village, but on the way Mowgli befriends the carefree bear, Baloo. Mowgli is determined to continue his life in the jungle, despite his encounters with Kaa, the malicious python, as well as King Louie and the apes who are determined to learn the ways of man from Mowgli.

This film has a huge historical significance. It was the last film produced by Walt Disney himself, and was released after his death. Upon his death, the future of the animation division of Disney Studios was in jeopardy, and only the success of The Jungle Book the animators that they wouldn't be laid off.

Another historically significant bit of information on The Jungle Book is the animation process itself. The process of xerography (basically, Xeroxing images instead of hand-drawing frame by frame) was first used in 101 Dalmatians (1961) out of sheer necessity due to the number of images of dalmatians needed. The process was continued to be used throughout the 60's, which was terrible news for the animation crew at the studio. This film began combining both xerography and traditional animation, bringing back a more classic visual aspect to the film than some other Disney films of the time.

The characters of the film are enormously representative of the lifestyles and viewpoints of the 1960's. There's Bagheera, the straight-laced and fatherly character; Baloo, the beatnik bear who can't live as plainly as Bagheera; there's the vultures, who clearly represent The Beatles (and were originally planned to be voiced by them - see the Trivia section below). And then... there's the apes, a clearly racist entry into the character list, which I'll describe more in a moment.

The soundtrack has some of Disney's best... and some of Disney's worst. The most memorable song of the film is "Bear Necessities", which went on to be nominated for Best Song at the Oscars (but lost out to "Talk to the Animals" from Doctor Dolittle). On the other end of the spectrum is Louis Prima's "I Wanna Be Like You". The song is sung by the King of the Apes who hopes to learn how to create fire with the aid of Mowgli. It's a sad thought that Disney was so certain that African-Americans would never be equal to whites that he set it into his final film in song. The song is actually featured on a Cracked.com article titled The 9 Most Racist Disney Characters.

Certainly an interesting film to look back on for the first time since childhood, though not one of Disney's best as far as I'm concerned.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):
  • Her role as Winifred the Elephant (Colonel Hathi's mate) was the last film role for Verna Felton, before her death in December 1966. Her first role in an animated Disney film was also that of an elephant: she was The Elephant Matriarch in Dumbo (1941).
  • According to Elsie Kipling Baimbridge, Rudyard Kipling's daughter, "Mowgli" is pronounced "MAU-glee", not "MOH-glee". She reportedly never forgave Walt Disney for the gaffe.
  • The xerographic system, which had been used since One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), was further refined to combine both Xeroxed cels with hand inked details. For example, while the basic animation on the village girl at the end of the movie was with Xeroxed cels, her mouth was inked by hand. The backgrounds also moved back towards the more traditional look of earlier films.
  • The Vultures were originally going to be voiced by The Beatles. The band's manager, Brian Epstein, approached the Disney studios about having The Beatles appear in the film, and Disney had his animators create the Vultures specifically to be voiced by the band. But when Epstein took the idea to the Beatles, John Lennon vetoed the idea, and told Epstein to tell Disney he should hire Elvis Presley instead. The look of The Vultures, with their mop-top haircuts and Liverpool voices, are a homage to The Beatles.
  • Kaa's song "Trust in me" was originally written for Mary Poppins (1964) as "Land of sand" but not used.

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