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Varied Eyes in the Jungle

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If anyone questions the value of Walt Disney’s contributions to the films animated by his studio, 1967's The Jungle Book is an edifying piece of work. The last Disney animated film to be produced during Walt’s lifetime—he died during its production—this beautiful, captivating, and surprisingly sharp feature benefits from his personal involvement. The difference between this film and the previous two, particularly The Sword in the Stone, is the difference between a mosquito bite and Mount Everest. Keeping a tight focus on character, he quite deliberately diverged from Rudyard Kipling’s brilliant collection of stories to tell another kind of story, a story about guiding a child through clashing influences of ideas, society, and environment. It’s a story about helping a child navigate a world that’s confusing enough for adults, let alone a boy raised by wolves.

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It’s interesting Disney chose to produce two movies back to back about a boy pupil. Movies centred on a child protagonist were hardly new for Disney—their best two animated films, Pinocchio and Dumbo, were both about boys finding their way in life. Peter Pan was also, to some extent, about a boy learning about life and Alice in Wonderland attempted the same for a girl, though it lacked the fidelity to character necessary to make this kind of story effective, a problem repeated with Sword in the Stone.

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The Jungle Book doesn’t have this problem. Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman), although he bears no resemblance to the character in Kipling’s books, is solidly established as an innocent and curious child. He also has an internal conflict in that he’s trying to find a world and people to belong to. Yet, as clearly and charmingly rendered as he is, the movie is much more about his parental figures, Baloo the Bear (Phil Harris) and Bagheera the black panther (Sebastian Cabot). Although Disney’s films had often featured children, it was really with Sleeping Beauty that they became more about the parents—the three fairies in Sleeping Beauty, Pongo and Perdita in 101 Dalmatians, and Merlin in The Sword in the Stone.

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Perhaps this was because Disney and his filmmakers were at places in their lives where it just became more interesting to think about the experience of parenting, perhaps their ability to identify with children had weakened and certainly Bambi was their last truly interesting child character. It’s worth thinking about the period in the late 1960s when The Jungle Book was made and the myriad destabilising issues current in the culture. Radical change was in the air and conflicting influences and ideas on how to approach governing an every day life were topics of fierce debate and anger. It fits with the clashing influences Mowgli is presented with and for the first time in the series of movies about parents we see rival parents—Baloo meets Mowgli for the first time as a child in the film instead of being present, as he was in the book, at the point when the infant Mowgli was accepted by the wolves. He and Bagheera are in philosophical conflict for much of the film over how to raise and instruct Mowgli. Tellingly, the only piece of dialogue, as far as I can tell, retained from Kipling is when Bagheera argues with Baloo’s choice to hit Mowgli as part of his instruction.

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Oddly, just as in the stories, the wolves who accept Mowgli among their cubs have very little to do with his education. This adds another layer of instability—his birth parents are, in the Disney film, never seen; his wolf parents are rarely seen; and he spends most of his time with a panther who, in the Disney film, has no particular obligation to him. In Kipling’s book, Bagheera trades a dead cow for the infant’s life so he formally enters a bargain. Disney removes any sort of contract or ritual of connexion.

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When the pack decides Mowgli must return to the human world, he meets more influences on the way, including the python, Kaa (Sterling Holloway), and Louie (Louie Prima), ape king of the monkeys who seem to be caricatures of ‘60s counterculture.

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Kipling’s descriptions of the arrogant and feckless monkeys was one of my favourite parts of the book and the disdain Bagheera and Baloo feel for them helps establish a sense of the jungle society:

“Listen, man-cub,” said the Bear, and his voice rumbled like thunder on a hot night. “I have taught thee all the Law of the Jungle for all the peoples of the jungle—except the Monkey-Folk who live in the trees. They have no law. They are outcasts. They have no speech of their own, but use the stolen words which they overhear when they listen, and peep, and wait up above in the branches. Their way is not our way. They are without leaders. They have no remembrance. They boast and chatter and pretend that they are a great people about to do great affairs in the jungle, but the falling of a nut turns their minds to laughter and all is forgotten. We of the jungle have no dealings with them. We do not drink where the monkeys drink; we do not go where the monkeys go; we do not hunt where they hunt; we do not die where they die. Hast thou ever heard me speak of the Bandar-log till today?”

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Reading this, I can’t help thinking, “How did Kipling know about Twitter?” Disney takes these characters and gives them the mannerisms and hairstyles of ‘60s, rebellious youth. But it’s not an outright satire—although we’re clearly meant to see their advocacy of irresponsibility as bad, the musical talents of King Louie, with his fascinating song about wanting to be human, are admired by Baloo who can’t resist joining their dancing, using Beat slang as he does so: “I’m gone, man, solid gone!” Baloo, with his “Bare Necessities” lifestyle, is quite Kerouacian, perhaps to be taken as the truly Beat while the monkeys are only Beatniks. I doubt Disney had it in mind but it makes me think of the contempt an aged Kerouac felt for the hippies in the late 1960s.

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Baloo was voiced by comedian Phil Harris who improvised much of his own dialogue, a technique that can backfire but which works very well in this case to make Baloo one of Disney’s most memorably earthy characters, particularly since the improvisations do little to break the integrity of the world in which he dwells. There’s very little postmodernism in evidence aside from the lamentable, continued use of the xerox process, but at least the beautiful background paintings look finished.

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The animation, despite suffering from the xerox process, is phenomenal, particularly when it comes to the animals. The time the artists spent studying the movements of beasts clearly shows, one of my favourite examples being Kaa the python.

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When he slinks away after being pushed off a tree his coils remain partly rigid and you can sense accurate python anatomy under the scales.

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In the book, Kaa is an uneasy and frightening ally of Baloo and Bagheera when they rescue Mowgli from the monkeys. In Disney’s film, he’s a minor villain and a bit silly. One wonders if there was any moral lesson intended when Mowgli risks falling prey to the snake’s hypnotic powers. Could he be meant to represent hallucinogenic drugs? Maybe, but there’s little to make that specific connexion. As a villain, he’s more amusing than threatening.

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Much, much more effective is Shere Khan, voiced by George Sanders. The choices Sanders makes with his lines are so brilliantly sinister, dripping with sadistic pleasure—they give me chills.

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Again, a change was made by Disney to reflect contemporary issues. Shere Khan’s reason for wanting to kill Mowgli in the book is because the infant was part of a group of humans he’d killed and he considered Mowgli his prey by right. In Disney’s film, he hates all humans, apparently making him a racist.

Some of Bagheera and Baloo’s dialogue has a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner vibe, especially when Bagheera asks Baloo, “You wouldn’t marry a panther, would you?” as part of an argument about whether creatures should stay with their own kind. But the awkwardness of this analogy makes it well that Disney didn’t push it too far.

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The Jungle Book had been adapted to film before in 1942 by Alexander Korda, as a live action film starring Sabu. There could be no actor more perfectly suited for the role of Mowgli than Sabu. At 18, he had the visibly muscular physique to support Kipling’s description of Mowgli’s extraordinary strength, he had experience handling animals, and he had genuine swashbuckler charm, as did the character in the book. When Mowgli receives a wound, Kipling describes him as laughing:

Mowgli laughed a little short ugly laugh, for a stone had hit him in the mouth. “Run back, Messua. This is one of the foolish tales they tell under the big tree at dusk . . .”

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A far cry from Disney’s skinny little Mowgli is this virile child of the jungle. Unfortunately, the Sabu film has little else to recommend it and is otherwise far less faithful to the book than Disney’s version. Disney’s film is, at its heart, a very different story to Kipling’s but it also happens to be a great one and a fitting swan song from Walt Disney.

The Jungle Book is available on Disney+.

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