DVD Review – THE JUNGLE BOOK – 40th Anniversary Edition

     October 6, 2007

Reviewed by James Napoli

“Find us scary places and write fun songs.” According to songwriter Richard Sherman on the commentary track of this Platinum Edition DVD, this was the directive given by Walt Disney at a creative meeting about The Jungle Book, his studio’s freely adapted take on the Rudyard Kipling classic. Notoriously light on story (or possessing an elegantly simple one, depending on your preference), the Disney treatment of the man-cub Mowgli’s adventures was essentially a road picture: the young foundling journeys through the jungle and meets a collection of memorable animal friends and foes along the way. It is almost impossible to imagine so thin a premise would pass muster today, but, according to the bonus features, it was an unqualified hit in its day. Having had the great fun of seeing the film again in a splendid, digitally-restored home version that retains its original 1.75 aspect ratio, the reason for its popularity is abundantly clear: you cannot help but develop a warm affection for (and vested interest in the fates of) the characters.

Beautifully-realized in both voice and visuals, Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman, son of the film’s director Wolfgang Reitherman), Bagheera the panther (Sebastian Cabot), Baloo the Bear (Phil Harris), Kaa the cobra (Sterling Holloway), Shere Khan the Tiger (George Sanders) and King Louie the orangutan (Louis Prima) welcome us into another world with all the humanity (animality?) they can muster. There’s also a very young Clint Howard voicing a baby elephant, and the Chad half of the British Invasion duo Chad &amp Jeremy supplying one of the Liverpool accents for the mop-topped vultures based on you-know-who. Current Disney animator Andreas Deja, another provider of commentary track, calls this character-driven approach to animated storytelling “thinking animation,” as in you can relate to what the character is thinking through the use of drawing and voice work.

The style was an influence on countless impressionable young would-be filmmakers (including Brad Bird, interviewed in a making-of DVD extra), as were its legendary directing animators, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, who are the subjects of another engaging bonus feature snippet. The songs, by Richard Sherman and his brother Robert, are energetic and draw on all sorts of different sources, including scat (a particularly satisfying vocal sparring between Harris and Prima is a highlight) and barbershop quartet. (Another composer, Terry Gilkyson penned the film’s signature tune, “The Bare Necessities”.) Combined with lush backgrounds and terrifically-rendered animal and human movements, the project earns the term “class act,” and many saw it as a wonderful coda to Walt Disney’s life, which ended before the film was released.

In the bare-bones story, Mowgli, raised by wolves, must leave the jungle and return to the man village, else he become lunch for Shere Khan, who hates humans for hunting his kind. That’s about it. In fact, the return to the world of man as a goal was the invention of Disney and his soon-to-be-estranged original story man, Bill Peet (in Kipling’s world, Mowgli came and went from the man village as necessary). Walt knew what he wanted, and, as was often the case, he found what was just right for the type of entertainment he had in mind. The evolution of the idea and the insight of its principal creators makes for fascinating viewing in a large collection of behind-the-scenes featurettes that are loaded with great archival material. The well-thought-out commentary track (also featuring Bruce Reitherman, who, fittingly enough, grew up to become a wildlife filmmaker) even takes time to drop in snippets of audio interviews made at the time with members of the animation team. There are several deleted songs also on offer, most of which seem rightly left out of the final product. Children’s interactive games and a no-adult-could-possibly-care music video of the kiddie group Jonas Brothers performing “I Wan’na Be Like You” (Louis Prima’s song from the film) round out the extensive and largely compelling bonus features.

I recently accompanied two friends and their five-year old child to Disneyland, allowing me to shed my too-hip cynicism and experience what I often deem an outlandish fantasy factory through the eyes of a child. What struck me most was how “It’s a Small World,” which is nothing but an extremely low-tech ride through a series of giant multicultural dolls, held my friend’s kid enraptured. The simplest premise, combined with arresting visuals and a bevy of interesting characters. As with The Jungle Book, somehow, Disney always knew.

Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book, 40th Anniversary Edition

Walt Disney Home Entertainment

78 minutes

Bonus Material: Audio Commentary by Richard Sherman, Andreas Deja and Bruce Reitherman, several behind-the-scenes featurettes, deleted songs, various interactive games for young people.

James Napoli contributes the column “I’ve Been Thinking” to Collider.

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