1967's "The Jungle Book" is not only an animated creation worthy of the "Classic Disney" brand name but also the infamous production that witnessed the passing of Uncle Walt. The death transformed the film from a routine cog in the Disney animation empire into a last gasp of extraordinary magic the company took decades to recapture. Perhaps this is why "Jungle Book" is such an exceptional and affectionate film.
As an adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling adventure novel, "Jungle Book" doesn't share the same dramatic density or epic sweep. Walt wouldn't hear of it, ordering his take on the material to be hepcat cool and loose, with sizable splashes of comedy and heart leading the story, not danger at every turn.
The softening of Kipling's tale might infuriate purists, but it opens the picture up to cuddle established Disney structure, while nudging the artists into new realms of period references and nightclub atmospherics. Director Wolfgang Reitherman (a "nine old men" Disney vet who took over feature animation when Walt passed) confidently assembles the journey of Mowgli (voiced by Wolfgang's son, Bruce Reitherman) as he grows from a jungle-hoppin' child to a curious young man, relying on the sheer grace of the talent behind the camera to make the film twinkle. It's a respectful, unobtrusive directing style I wish was still embraced today.
There's a cordial appeal to "Jungle Book" that informs every moment and goes beyond even the most elemental usage of Disney friendliness. It's a comfy-sweater animated endeavor, summing up the mid-60's mood of the company as they transitioned from innovative thirst to a scaled-down assembly line mindset that, while depleted of the pure wellspring of imagination it once held, still churned out some sublime animated efforts ("Robin Hood," "Fox and the Hound," and "The Rescuers" jump immediately to mind). "Jungle Book" was that first step to a new Disney without Disney.
As a matter of personal taste, I'm deeply in love with this film. To this day I've never seen an animated effort capture the essence of pallin' around quite like "Jungle Book." One could criticize the picture for its limited interest in a snappy pace, but I was always grateful the film gave plenty of screentime to Mowgli and Baloo's horseplay. It strengthens a bond that pays off with a bittersweet emotional diamond at the end of the picture, when the jungle boy must make a choice to either stay in comfort or continue on his path to the unknown complexities of manhood. "Jungle Book" is a series of crazy misadventures and peaceful, episodic plotting, but the core of the film is defined by the affable, lazy-summer-day nature of the bond between Baloo and Mowgli.
The rest of "Jungle Book" is lost to riptide of jazzy energy and comedic pit stops that round out this odd Disneyfied kingdom. Only in this film could you hear the venerable Louis Prima voice a swingin' orangutan king to be-bop perfection, George Sanders wrap his velvety voice around villainous tiger Shere Khan, or motherly panther Bagheera with the regal, dulcet tones of Sebastian Cabot. Let's not even start with the casting nirvana of Phil Harris as the slacker bear Baloo - likely Disney's most magical voice-to-character match in their distinguished history. Heck, they loved Baloo so much, they put a hat on him and called the character Little John in "Robin Hood." Harris is 1000lbs of magic in the film, embodying the buddy every little boy wished they had.
For the "40th Anniversary" DVD, "Jungle Book" is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.75:1 (anamorphic widescreen), a first for the film on the DVD format. Perhaps the new ratio might annoy Disneyphiles who want all possible scraps of visual information they can grab, but the image has found a satisfying balance on this DVD. The rest of the presentation elements are equally as exciting, with colors exploding off the screen and the print as crisp and clean as the day it premiered in theaters.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix restores some clarity to the occasionally murky "Jungle Book" soundtrack. Score and musical selections are given renewed life, jumping out of the speakers and dancing right in front of the viewer. Dialogue is also crystallized to appealing standards.
In characteristic Disney archival mode, the "40th Anniversary" DVD is a magnificent gathering of insight into the extensive artistic process that brought the picture to life. There's just a mountain of supplements to climb.
First up is a feature-length audio commentary with Richard Sherman (1/2 of the songwriting team), Andreas Deja (current Disney animator and fan of the film), and Bruce Reitherman (voice of Mowgli and son of the director). Consider this audio track a master class in professional appreciation: each participant extols the virtues of "Jungle Book," from the character animation quirks to the unforgettable soundtrack. While it lacks a coldly informational tone, it's nonetheless a treat to hear those connected to the production point out the idiosyncrasies of the movie.
For added historical oomph, archival audio recordings of Larry Clemmons (writer), Ollie Johnston (animation legend), and Wolfgang Reitherman are included in the discussion.
"The Lost Character: Rocky the Rhino" (7 minutes) is a short featurette exploring the deleted character of Rocky, a dim-witted rhinoceros (voiced by Frank Fontaine) who factored into Mogwli's interaction with the Beatlesque vultures. Walt just wasn't feeling the continual aggression toward the Man-Cub was benefiting the movie's pace, thus a removal of Rocky and a slight reinvention of the vultures was in order. Rocky's scene is presented here in a series of fully-voiced storyboards.
A frightening "I Wan'na Be Like You" music video (3 minutes), performed by the Jonas Brothers, is included. If you want to know why the heart of rock & roll has stopped beating, watch this trainwreck of a cover.
"Disney Song Selection" (13 minutes) offers up some karaoke, with the songs "Colonel Hathi's March, "Bare Necessities," "I Wan'na Be Like You," and "That's What Friends Are For." You can view the scenes with or without lyrics.
"Deleted Songs" (21 minutes) presents the full work of composer Terry Gilkyson, who was replaced by the Sherman Brothers once Walt decided to flip the "Jungle Book" project sunny-side up. The songs collected here seem more suited to a Rankin/Bass special than a feature film, but it's an invaluable piece of history, allowing viewers a rare listen to the film's more ambitious origins. The audio quality is a little rough (possibly from a phonograph source), and contains the tracks: "Brothers All," "The Song of the Seeonee," "The Bare Necessities" (a demo version of the lone song that wasn't discarded), "Monkey See, Monkey Do," "I Knew I Belonged To Her," "In A Day's Work," and "The Mighty Hunters."
"Insuring a Future for Wildlife and Wild Places" (4 minutes) is a commercial promoting Disney's positive work with nature's creatures, from their extensive cinematic history to the Animal Kingdom theme park in Orlando, Florida.
Sneak Peeks for "Peter Pan: Return to Neverland," "Santa Clause 3," "High School Musical 2: Extended Edition," "The Aristocats: Special Edition," "Enchanted," "Meet the Robinsons," and "Ratatouille" are included, along with a commercial for the "Adventures by Disney" travel company.
"The Bare Necessities: The Making of 'The Jungle Book'" (46 minutes) takes an in-depth look at the creation of the picture. Surprisingly candid covering production troubles and arguments, the documentary focuses on how Walt himself swooped in and took the reigns during development, pushing the film away from a gloomy Kipling adaptation and into something lighthearted and "Disney." It also touches on the animation genius of the film, the abrupt switch in songwriters before production commenced (including a distancing from rock tunes), and ultimately the tragic and studio-quaking death of Walt. "Bare Necessities" has everything a fan of the film could hope for. Sensitive and as honest as a Disney-produced recollection is allowed to be, it's a documentary not to be missed.
"Disney's Kipling" (15 minutes) is an extended look at the differences between Kipling's iconic novel and Walt's equally adored adaptation.
"The Lure of 'The Jungle Book'" (9 minutes) interviews animators (such as Andreas Deja, Will Finn, and Brad Bird) and filmmakers on the impact of the "Jungle Book," and how much the picture influenced their lives and future career choices.
"Mowgli's Return to the Wild" (5 minutes) zeros in on Bruce Reitherman and his adult years photographing wildlife, and how the fundamentals of storytelling were imparted to him by his father, Wolfgang.
"Frank & Ollie" (4 minutes) is an archival featurette with animation icons Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Here they demonstrate how they nurture their artistic impulses and how the final character animations are informed by their personality.
Referenced throughout the DVD is the fact that these two personally animated 50% of "Jungle Book." Wow.
"Baloo's Virtual Swingin' Jungle Cruise" is a series of DVD games designed for children to explore the world of "Jungle Book." Separated into four sections, trust me when I write that this adventure is strictly for kids.
"DisneyPedia: Junglemania!" (15 minutes) hopes to connect the animated animals of "Jungle Book" with real-world creatures, skipping all over the globe showcasing wildlife footage.
"'The Jungle Book' Fun with Languages Game" is a matching contest for toddlers introducing them to elements of the film and the animal kingdom. It's offered in English, Spanish, and French.
Finally, a still frame art gallery covers images from "Visual Development," "Character Design," "Storyboard Art," "Layouts and Backgrounds," "Production Photos," and "Publicity."
"Jungle Book" is a buried gem of the Disney Empire, absent the regality of the early years and the flash of the 89-95 victory lap. Whatever it lacks in heroic reach it more than makes up for in sociable personality and devastatingly expressive animation from the Disney masters, making it an underground classic that's impressively stood the test of time. The "40th Anniversary" DVD is an almost perfect document of the film, filling in the question marks for fans and allowing newcomers the opportunity to appreciate the genius behind the scenes of this exquisite animated charmer.