Thursday, February 13, 2014

THE JUNGLE BOOK: Blu-ray (Walt Disney 1967) Disney Home Video

Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967) is undeniably one of the crown jewels in the studio’s illustrious canon of animated classics; also, regrettably, the last project to be touched by the hand of original genius, affectionately referred to around the lot as ‘Uncle Walt’. It’s often been stated (but bears mentioning yet again) that Disney was a truly rarified individual in Hollywood – and this, in an era when some very rare and iconic creatures walked the earth in Southern California.  Arguably, Walt was a husband and father first, a creative genius second, and a studio mogul third. Walt Disney: the custodian of our collective upbringing and coming of age; the man who implicitly promised us ‘a dream is a wish our hearts made’; who fostered the very best work in the art of animation by inspiring great talents to excel in their craft (and with whom he remained utterly fascinated by, and ever-devoted to, throughout their lengthy careers at the studio). Walt was, in fact, a very humble, exceedingly genuine human being; but particularly so in matters of business: again, in an industry where public image is everything and the realities of the person behind it often miles apart.
To Walt, however, there seemed to be no artifice, no affectations and no self-appointed airs about his preeminence in the world of entertainment. And make no mistake: Disney was a titanic figure in the history of Hollywood. Walt’s enduring humanity, his love of children (and, in fact, the child within us all) and his desire to unite the world with his own inimitable brand of enchantment; these altruistic motives cannot be overstated. They most certainly ought never to be forgotten. For Walt Disney – apart from his many glowing accomplishments (the most honored individual in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with twenty-six statuettes) was an exception above most – or perhaps, first and foremost - though arguably, he never regarded himself as such.
No, Disney was a simple man, but the best kind: imbued with an innate thirst to enrich us by sharing his uncommon qualities and immeasurable gifts as the pied piper of our collective childhoods. For some time now, in our popular culture it has become rather fashionable to bash great men – particularly after they have left us and cannot defend themselves from the allegations. Yet Disney’s reputation – apart from a few minor attempts to tarnish it – has largely remained Teflon-coated; a testament to Walt’s continued ability to inspire, illuminate and ultimately fill the world with benevolence for humanity at large.
At the height of its creative output, the Disney Studio was something of a bastion for some of the most gifted artisans working in movies during the mid-20th century; impressionist painters like Mary Blair, animators, Marc Davis and Wolfgang Reitherman, the incomparable matte artist, Peter Ellenshaw and brilliant technical advisor, Ub Iwerks; composers (Richard and Robert Sherman) and, of course, gifted ‘idea’/story man, Bill Peet. In this latter example we have something of a more complicated individual; Peet having joined the studio in 1937 just as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was beginning production, and remaining an ensconced figure within its’ hallowed halls until 1964 – just as creative development on The Jungle Book was picking up steam. It was, in fact, Peet who suggested Rudyard Kipling’s classic to Walt. However, unlike Walt, Peet seems to have been something of a volatile sort – utterly brilliant in his ability to draw cohesion from the chaos of story-boarding sessions and extremely instrumental in shaping the creative ideas that went into some of Walt’s most exceptional and celebrated masterpieces; Pinocchio (1940), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) among them.
Lamentably, Peet had a correspondingly low threshold for what he deemed the abject tedium imposed on artists by the studio’s hierarchy. He also had a fiery disposition when his authority was questioned. Throughout his association with the studio, Peet frequently – and often penetratingly – quarreled with Walt, who not only tolerated these outbursts, but respected Peet for his commitment to each and every last detail; a fastidiousness not unlike his own in many respects. Such is a true artist, I suppose; defiant in his beliefs and standing behind every last concept to defend it to the bitter end. By 1964, Peet’s creative authority was no longer in question. But his sledgehammer tactics, both in promoting, then enforcing his decisions, had also begun to wear thin on Walt’s patience. Worse for Peet, was the inevitable downsizing of the studio – the onus for every animated feature’s narrative structure after 1959 resting squarely on his shoulders. Despite his immeasurable contributions on the preliminary stages of The Jungle Book, Peet would not remain at the studio long enough to see most of his concepts incorporated into the finished film. The rift was predicated on the critical and financial failure of The Sword and the Stone (1963), leaving an open wound in their creative differences for many years to come.
Yet, The Jungle Book emerged from this backstage fray virtually unscathed; a swan song befitting Walt’s many contributions in the art of animation and undeniably one of the films for which the old master would very much like to be remembered. The Jungle Book is also, unquestioningly, a turning point in the way animated features had been made up until that point – Walt’s desire to cast bona fide ‘stars’ and record their vocals before a single drawing had been committed to paper, prompting some of his animators to bristle. But like most decisions made by Walt, this one too proved inspired. 
Walt had wanted to do a movie version of the beloved Rudyard Kipling children’s adventure book for some time. But the project kept getting delayed throughout the years; first by Walt’s aspirations to diversify his empire with segues into both live-action features and television. Walt was also distracted by the creation and expansion of his theme park; the official opening of Disneyland in 1955 a groundbreaking event, more costly even than his crippling investment (six years and $6 million spent) on Sleeping Beauty (1959). No, it just wasn’t The Jungle Book’s time.
After Sleeping Beauty’s stunning debut (for it must remain under consideration as, arguably, the most lavishly produced Disney feature ever attempted) the studio incurred a staggering debt, forcing Walt to reconsider more economical ways to make subsequent animated features. Even as the studio’s schedule of live-action movies was ramping up to include such heavy hitters as Swiss Family Robinson, Pollyanna (both released in 1960), The Parent Trap (1961) and the penultimate Disney classic, Mary Poppins (1964), the sixties were marked by a period of retrenchment where animation was concerned; One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) and The Sword and the Stone (1963) the decade’s only predecessors to The Jungle Book.
While the former proved to be an immediate hit, the latter was poorly received by audiences and critics alike, and Walt, to some extent, blamed Bill Peet’s unerring stubborn resolve on the project for its tepid reception. Viewed today, The Sword in the Stone remains one of Disney’s weakest animated features – if not the weakest; its lack of hummable songs and rather farcical handling of England’s most treasured mythologies about Camelot and Merlin, leading some critics of their day even to question Walt’s integrity as a storyteller.  
Early on, Walt made several executive decisions that would positively impact The Jungle Book. First, he all but threw away the Rudyard Kipling original in favor of his own embellishments and sight gags. Next, he hired Richard and Robert B. Sherman to augment the story with pop tunes. Indeed, The Jungle Book remains the most top-heavily tune-filled of Disney’s post-war animated movies. Furthermore, no attempt was made to acclimatize the score to either the movie’s period or its surroundings. The Sherman’s score, and Terry Gilkyson’s Oscar-nominated ‘The Bare Necessities’ is decidedly an homage to swingin’ sixties jazz (resident composer George Bruns, handling the underscore).  The Jungle Book is also a departure for its all-star cast, relying almost exclusively on these star presences to carry the film. There’s really not much in the way of plot, and frankly, not much more needed to delight the audience completely; strung along on the hipster-harmonizing cool of Louis Prima and mischievous underplaying by Phil Harris, who initially balked at Walt’s request, believing his voice would never lend itself to Baloo, the bear.
Yet, it all clicks rather effortlessly - perhaps, because the stars chosen to annunciate these characters have been seriously typecast as their uber-equivalent in the animal kingdom; George Sanders oozing suave menace as Shere Khan, the tiger; Sterling Holloway (one of Walt’s perennial favorites) – utterly effective as the slithering sycophant, Kaa – the snake; indubitably cultured and scrupulous Sebastian Cabot as Bagheera – the panther; J. Pat O'Malley, pomposity personified, doing Colonel Hathi – the lead elephant; and finally, the aforementioned Louis Prima, whose gravelly voice and loose musical styling lend perfect accompaniment to the long-limbed orangutan, King Louie.
Walt believed so firmly in the texturing of these vocal talents – each immediately recognizable to anyone over the age of eleven – that he all but ignored some of the animators’ initial concerns over the non-linear narrative. If viewed only from this narrow perspective, then The Jungle Book really doesn’t have much to offer; the story of an orphaned man-club Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman) reared by wolves, but befriended thereafter by virtually all the various animals – except Shere Khan – is given over to a series of episodic vignettes. Miraculously, none veer off course. When the story paints itself into a corner the characters merely break into song. Comparatively speaking, one could never get away with as much in a live action feature without bringing everything to a screeching halt. But animation is unique amongst movie art in its ability to suspend our collective disbelief and simply fall under the spell of its colorful imagery. Moreover, The Jungle Book’s superb vocalizations ensure boredom never sets in.
George Sanders and Sebastian Cabot, for example, are Shakespearean trained orators who could, arguably, recite the telephone book and get away with it. On the other hand, Sterling Holloway’s is a voice unlike any other; as is J. Pat O’Malley’s. We can sense the weight in their diction without straining to find deeper meaning. Finally, Louis Prima and Phil Harris exhibit the hallmarks of veteran entertainers from their respective fields. When they sing they emote – and vice versa; the lyrical joy in their unique sound triggering an instant appreciation for their innate gifts as beloved hams.  For its’ infectious vivacity, its expressive vocal characterizations perfectly captured through the art of imagination, and its exuberant joie de vivre, The Jungle Book remains an exemplar of where the modern animated movie eventually gravitated; away from the fairy-tale and into a whole new world of character-driven musical comedies loosely strung together by the most threadbare of plots. 
Our story begins, of course, in the wilds of India. Very little of Rudyard Kipling’s dark adventure novel remains in the finished movie, but the opening scenes of The Jungle Book capture at least something of its’ essence as we hear the silken voice of Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot), the black panther, narrate. In short order, we watch Bagheera rescue the baby Mowgli from an abandoned basket near the water’s edge, taking him to the den of a wolf pack to be reared until the age of ten. But when the pack learns Shere Khan, the tiger (George Sanders) has returned to these parts, having heard of Mowgli and determined to kill him before he can reach adulthood, they decide the boy must be taken to the nearby man village for his own protection. Bagheera agrees to be Mowgli’s custodian on this journey, keeping its true purpose a secret from the boy.
Mowgli is distraught when he discovers what is going on, and stubbornly resolved not to go through with Bagheera’s plan. A moonlit confrontation with Kaa, the python (Sterling Holloway) follows, in which Mowgli is hypnotized, then nearly eaten by Kaa; a fate narrowly avoided first, by Bagheera (who distracts the slithery predator and is himself, hypnotized) then by Mowgli, who pushes Kaa off his perch in the tree and into a heap on the ground, leaving kinks in his coils.
The next day, Bagheera and Mowgli are awakened by Colonel Hathi’s dawn patrol of marching elephants. Mowgli makes a friend of Hathi’s son (Clint Howard), but a rather cantankerous enemy of Hathi himself, who advises Bagheera to take the Mowgli to the man village with all speed. Instead, Mowgli defies them both, running off into the jungle where he inadvertently meets Baloo, the bear (Phil Harris). At first resisting Baloo’s friendship, Mowgli quickly discovers he is just as determined to have him remain in the jungle. Bagheera attempts to sway the pair to reconsider. But Baloo introduces Mowgli to ‘the bare necessities’ of life. Regrettably, a nearby pack of monkeys is waiting to kidnap the boy and bring him to the ancient hidden ruins where King Louie – the orangutan – reigns supreme.
Louie’s rapacious interest in Mowgli is driven by his desire to possess the secret of ‘man’s red flower’ – fire. As Mowgli has been reared in the wilds, and therefore, knows absolutely nothing of mankind – ergo, fire – he can be of no use to King Louie. This might prove disastrous, except that Baloo and Bagheera have devised a plan to save the boy; Baloo disguising himself as a female orangutan – complete with cocoanut-shell snout and grass skirt, and, engaging the lustful Louie in a spirited dance, interrupted only after Baloo’s disguise comes loose. After some spirited slapstick (Baloo tickling Louie’s armpits until his infectious laugher topples the remains of the ancient temple) Baloo, Bagheera and Mowgli retreat into the jungle. Mowgli is still determined to remain with Baloo. But Bagheera sees Baloo to reason. Even together, they would never be able to stop Shere Khan from killing Mowgli.
Baloo agrees to betray his promise to Mowgli for the sake of the child’s safety. However, once exposed in his complicity, Mowgli shuns his old friend with bitter tears and runs away. In the meantime, Shere Khan has returned, consulting with a very nervous and highly suspicious Kaa, who is vague about Mowgli’s whereabouts. Mowgli is discovered, alone and friendless in a clearing by some inquisitive vultures (Chad Stuart and Lord Tim Hudson supplying all the voices) who are hilarious knock-offs of The Beatles.  They momentarily befriend and serenade Mowgli as a barbershop quartet. Initially, the Shermans had intended their song to be recorded with a rock and roll tempo, making a more obvious parallel to The Beatles. Walt, however, believed such a transparent reference would date the movie, and so the decision was made to play the vultures ‘straight’, while retaining their decidedly British accents and what Colonel Hathi might have astutely referred to as their ‘goony-looking haircuts’.  
Shere Khan is watching from the underbrush and strikes at the appropriate moment. The vultures scatter, but then regroup and feebly attempt to create a diversion. Baloo charges at Shere Khan; catching the proverbial tiger by the tail as a bolt of lightning from a gathering thunderstorm ignites a nearby petrified tree. Mowgli seizes one of the burning branches and ties it to Shere Khan’s tail, forcing the frightening oversized kitty into the forest. Victory is at hand. Only, it now appears Baloo has succumbed to wounds inflicted during their fight, presumably lying dead in a quiet pool of rainwater near the clearing. Bagheera comforts an emotional Mowgli, eulogizing Baloo as a valiant friend who gave his life in a worthy cause. Only then does Baloo open his eyes to reveal he has been quietly listening to them all along and has, in fact, emerged from the confrontation with Shere Khan relatively unscathed.
The three old friends depart into the forest, coming upon the man village where Mowgli hears the melodic strains of a young girl sweetly singing by the babbling brook. Inquisitive to know more about her, Mowgli climbs a tree, but loses his footing; slipping and falling into the water and momentarily startling them both. As Bagheera and Baloo look on, Mowgli is lured into the man village by the girl’s subtle flirtations. “Well, he’s hooked,” Baloo explains. His disappointment, however, is short-lived, as Bagheeri engages Baloo in a spirited reprise of ‘The Bare Necessities’; the two old chums departing paw in paw into the sunset; a most fitting epitaph to Walt’s untimely departure.
The Jungle Book was released nearly a year after Walt’s death and was an instant success. In many ways it gave the old-time animators and their fledgling new breed of up and comers a renewed send of pride and the fortitude to look ahead to the future without Walt. There would be bumps along this road; a steady and severe decline in the animated movie’s popularity in general, and, dwindling returns at the theme parks too. But in the early 1980’s a new regime, helmed by former Paramount executive, Michael Eisner, reinvigorated the Disney brand and profits, this time by diversifying the company’s assets with forays into more adult-themed movies via the newly instituted ‘Touchstone’ label, but also an aggressive reinvestment in TV – with particular successes achieved in the sit-com. There was even a brief resurgence of ‘The Disney Sunday Movie’ on ABC – a coveted timeslot held for many years by the Disney organization to promote new made-for-TV programming under their family banner and air time-honored Disney classics from the vault.
In retrospect, The Jungle Book poignantly marks the sign post at this crossroads in the studio’s history; movies made by Walt and those created after his passing.  The animal characterizations are far removed from any of the realism achieved in films like Bambi (1942) or even One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961). Shere Khan’s physical presence, as example, is so obviously derived from the visage, deportment and mannerisms of George Sanders, even going so far as to capture Sander’s square jaw in profile, that one cannot help but immediately identify the actor with his animated alter ego.  Yet, The Jungle Book remains a joyous, sincere and thoroughly satisfying send up to Kipling and to the master himself – Walt Disney; a splendid revision of a beloved book, and one hell of a good show besides. Since The Jungle Book, animated features have increasingly relied on star-powered voices to successfully market the movies. Regrettably, far too many of the studio’s subsequent efforts have done so at the expense of solid storytelling.
Arguably, The Jungle Book lacks this too. And yet, it doesn’t seem to matter in its case. The film continues to work its magic primarily because it carefully balances the obviousness in its characterizations with subtle nods to Kipling’s source material, tongue-firmly-in-cheek and with the cream of the jest explicitly designed to entertain us. The Jungle Book also points away from the time-honored fairy tale tradition that – with very few exceptions - had been the studio’s bread and butter during its golden period. After Disney’s brief cultural renaissance and love-in with the fairytale in the late 1980’s early 90’s (The Little Mermaid 1989, Beauty and the Beast 1991, Aladdin 1992), the studio once again retreated to the precepts first established by The Jungle Book, delving into more contemporary fare; Toy Story (1995), Monsters Inc. (2001), Cars (2006) et al; but abandoning hand-drawn animation to streamline the art and expedite the time between theatrical releases.  But The Jungle Book remains the trailblazer that set these standards.  It’s a wonder to behold, a treasure worthy of our embrace and a delightful movie to share with the entire family. “Oh, ooo-bee, do! I wanna be like you-hoo-hoo!”  
Disney’s new Diamond Edition Blu-ray leaves something to be desired. The intense DNR scrubbing applied with rather globular lack of precision on The Sword and the Stone is almost as egregious on The Jungle Book. We’ve lost the film’s original grain structure as well as some of the finer lines and details in the rough pencil drawings – faithfully reproduced by the Xerox process. This digital ‘clean-up’ is, of course, problematic. Those who have never known The Jungle Book may not miss what is absent. But the movie doesn’t look anything like it did back in 1967, or even as it might have during its multiple theatrical reissues. Color is markedly improved. The image sports a robust palette of lurid greens, sun-shine yellows, magnificent midnight blues and velvety blacks. It all looks good, but decidedly not great and this is a shame for a film as beloved as The Jungle Book.    
Disney’s insistence on creating new 7.1 DTS tracks for Blu-ray doesn’t really utilize the fullest range herein, presumably because the original elements do not lend themselves to as much tinkering and/or manipulations.  The most obvious improvements are made to the celebrated songs and underscore. These sound fabulous. Dialogue is less impressive, however, and somewhat tinny. Thankfully, we also get the original mono mix in Dolby Digital. Honestly, this is the way I remember The Jungle Book sounding in my theater – more or less – and it works for me. I’m not opposed to the 7.1, but it’s decidedly not as effective as other similar mixes Disney has committed to on previously issued catalogue Blu-rays. This one just seems to draw undue attention to itself.
New extra features are limited. Thankfully, Disney Inc. is not adverse to including the wealth of extras from their DVD editions; albeit, none remastered in hi-def. New stuff includes a brief intro from the late Diane Disney Miller – Walt’s daughter – and, songwriter Richard Sherman; also, the originally planned ending in storyboard; a sequence devoted to Mowgli’s difficult assimilation into the man village. There’s also a shameless PR junket for Disney Animation’s ‘spark’ program and less than 10 minutes of Richard Sherman, animator Floyd Norman, and Diane Disney Miller at the Walt Disney Family Museum inside the Presidio. Three toss away features that help you isolate the songs for a sing-a-long are also included. Finally, there’s an 18 min. tour of Disney’s Animal Kingdom; a superficially slapped together commercial endorsement designed to entice the toddler sect into begging their parents for a vacation at the Magic Kingdom; clever – but transparent, if you ask me.
Mercifully, we get much better content carried over from the original DVD extras. These include the comprehensive audio commentary, featuring Richard Sherman again, artist Andreas Deja, and Mowgli’s voice, Bruce Reitherman along with archived interviews from many other talents involved in the movie’s creation, now sadly dead and gone. Great stuff.  Better still is the 46 min. ‘making of’ documentary, and, nearly 15 minutes of comparative analysis between Rudyard Kipling’s classic and the film; plus 9 additional minutes of present day animators affectionately waxing about the Lure of The Jungle Book. A brief discussion with Bruce Reitherman follows. In it, he explains the impact the movie had on his present choice of career (he’s a nature documentarian).
There’s also a vintage snippet from Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color featuring Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas; two of the most beloved of Disney’s original nine old men, and a brief storyboard recreation of a scene to have included a rhino cut from the movie. Finally, there is the Jonas Brothers reworking of ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ – an utterly painful assault on the eardrum. Stick to the original. You’ll have a better appreciation for the song. Bottom line: The Jungle Book is a seminal work in the Disney canon. This disc isn’t a faithful rendering. But for those who don’t recall it in its original form the digital liberties taken to ‘clean up’ the movie for a whole new generation won’t seem all that distracting.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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