Thursday, March 22, 2012

Let’s Review a Movie: The Jungle Book (1967)

In 1967 the last film ever to be produced under the personal hand of Walt Disney was released to theatres.  During The Jungle Book’s production Walt Disney told the people working on it not to read the book it was based on.  Well old Uncle Walt is getting his wish because I haven’t read the original book, and so this review will be looking at this movie entirely as a standalone project.  

Unlike The Rescuers this movie has aged quite nicely for me.   I think it’s because it has a nice balance of funny and touching moments, like Mowgli lamenting leaving his home and not wanting to go to the man village and then the physical comedy of him and Bagheera trying to climb up a tree.  There’s also Kaa’s song trust in me with its use of Kaa’s body in funny ways, but also has a dark undertone in that Kaa is doing all that so he can eat Mowgli.  There is also a villian who is dengerous and yet oddly charming.  It's a good mix of contrasts.

The personalities of the characters work well too.  They aren’t changing as characters, but they are all very different from each other and so it’s fun to watch them play off one another.  There’s the fun loving Baloo and Louie versus the serious Bagheera, who was and still is my favourite character here.  He is a cat which as a cat lover gives him bonus points, but really I think it’s because he is so serious while the other main side character Baloo is not.  And yet they both want what is best for Mowgli, to have him safe from Shere Kahn.  Bagheera is a good guy while not being a particularly nice and gentle guy and I like that, it gives the character dimension.  I really love the military strict Hati and his stubborn wife Winfried; as an adult I find they have some of the funniest stuff in the film.  Like when Hati tells one of his men “wipe off that silly grin, Solider, this is the army.”  There is also the sinister and yet suffering Kaa, who is a great contrast with the snooty Shere Khan.  Finally, though they come in at the end of the film the singing vultures are some of the most memorable characters in here.  For me I think that comes from the odd combination of them being a clear stand in for The Beatles and yet they sing like a barber shop quartet.  According to the behind the scenes stuff included on the DVD this was done because Walt thought having them sing like the Beatles would date the film too much.  Apparently he thought barber shop quartets were going to be more timeless than the Beatles.  You misjudged that a little Walt.  Oh, well it works just great so yay for a happy accident.

There is one other thing about characters that I should mention and that is the idea that King Louie is supposedly racist; and I’m going to come right out and say that I honestly don’t understand how.  He’s a jazz singing orangutan who is king of the monkey’s and his name and the lyric “king of the swingers” were likely an homage to the man who voiced him.  What is racist about this character?  Someone please explain this to me because I don’t get it.

Okay moving on to more pleasant things, the music is good and well-timed through-out the film.  It feels like Disney is using the songs the way they do best, to tell a story.  We get introduced to the characters, the situations with them, and of course their catchy as all hell.  The songs are also light and fun, with some nice mixing of tunes like the jazz style of King Louie, the previously mentioned barber shop quartet, and the quiet solo of the young girl at the end.   While some of the background music, especially in the opening credits, is darker and gives the film weight.  I also enjoy that the melody of “My Own Home’ was played throughout the film before we heard the lyrics from the girl from the village.  It makes it feel like this is what the film was all leading up to.  So it seems like Mowgli’s desire to go into the man village at the end doesn’t totally come out of nowhere.  On the DVD commentary they discuss how this is Mowgli’s coming of age arc.  Does he stay in the jungle and be a big jungle bum bear like Baloo, or does he move on and become a man?  I agree with them, but I think it could have been stronger too.  Throughout the film Mowgli has said the he can handle himself and that he doesn’t fear Shere Kahn.  I would have liked to have seen a little bit more with that.  Where Mowgli acknowledges that yeah they were doing what was best for him in trying to keep him away from Shere Kahn, and that over-confidence and insisting that you can go it alone aren’t always the right way to approach things.  I think that would made his arc more prominent in the film, but it’s not bad as is.

As a slight aside I do want to give special mention to the commentary of this film because it provides lots of behind the scenes information, including clips from Ollie Johnston and Woolie Reitherman that I find fascinating and is definitely worth checking out.  Oh, and I will point out that the commentary is from the 40th Anniversary  platinum edition DVD since the Disney Company will no doubt change it around for the diamond, titanium, or whatever the new ‘edition’ the re-releases are going to be under.

Now speaking of Woolie Reitherman he was one of the directors on this movie so there is reused animation here, but this time I am less inclined to criticize it.  For me that lends evidence to the idea that the more invested an audience is in the film the more flaws are forgiven.  While watching this film I’m enjoying the songs, and the dialogue between all the different personalities of the characters, and especially the movements of the characters in their animation, so the fact there are some scenes that have similar animation is not a big deal.  In fact it seems to invoke the reaction that I think Reitherman wanted in the first place ‘hey that thing looks like it's from that other movie, neat!’ and we carry on.

To sum up this movie simply: it’s fun.  It’s has catchy songs and a good balance of tone and is rather fast paced.  It has interesting characters, and its story works for the most part.  In short it’s a brilliantly animated film and of my favourites from Disney.

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