The Disney track record for adapting classic works of literature continued with the release of The Jungle Book in 1967. Based on the tales of British writer Rudyard Kipling, the movie is perhaps most notable as the last film to be produced by Walt Disney, as he passed away before it was completed.
The film tells the story of Mowgli, a boy who is raised by wolves in the middle of the jungle. Bagheera, a black panther who has taken on the role of protector for the “man-cub,” discovers that Shere Khan, a man-eating tiger, has reappeared in the jungle and vows to take Mowgli to the “man-village” for his own protection. After nearly escaping the clutches of a hypnotic python, Kaa, the pair meets Baloo, a carefree, music-loving bear. Despite Bagheera’s disapproval, Baloo convinces Mowgli to remain in the jungle and live without responsibility or worry. When Mowgli is kidnapped by monkeys and only narrowly escapes danger, Baloo realizes that Mowgli needs to leave the jungle for his own safety.
Mowgli, feeling betrayed by Baloo’s about-face, runs away and again only narrowly escapes Kaa. Bagheera tries to organize the elephants to help them search for Mowgli, with the help of head elephant Colonel Hathi, while Mowgli makes friends with a quartet of mop-topped vultures. But before Baloo and Bagheera can come to his rescue, Shere Khan corners the boy, setting up a final showdown between man and beast.
Quite a few changes were made when bringing Kipling’s original tales to the big screen. Part of the reason for this, no doubt, was to lessen the perceived darkness of the originals. Still, in Kipling’s version, there are some obvious differences from the way Disney adapted the stories. For example, in the original Jungle Book tales:
- Kaa is not a villain but one of Mowgli’s best friends.
- Bagheera is less serious, and Baloo is actually more serious.
- The monkeys are more evil as opposed to fun-loving and goofy.
- Mowgli does not rebel against the idea of going to the “man-village;” in fact, he makes the decision to go himself.
- Mowgli kills Shere Khan and skins him.
Additionally, while the film ends with Mowgli’s arrival in the “man-village,” Kipling’s stories continue past that time, showing Mowgli’s interactions with the human tribe, his eventual casting-out (after being accused of black magic by a jealous rival), and his revenge upon the village for wronging him.
As Carrie pointed out in last week’s review of The Sword in the Stone (1963), the Disney animators had a habit of recycling old animation sequences to save time and money (see the comparison between Wart and his dogs and Mowgli and his wolf brothers). In the case of The Jungle Book, the dance sequence between Baloo and King Louie (which you can see in the clip posted below) would later be reused in 1973’s Robin Hood as a dance between Little John (who is, essentially, Baloo wearing clothes) and Lady Cluck, Maid Marian’s attendant.
The Jungle Book features a great soundtrack, most notably Baloo’s paean to idleness, “The Bare Necessities,” the elephant’s marching song (“Colonel Hathi’s March”), and “I Wan’na Be Like You,” in which King Louie (fittingly played by the indelible King of Swing, Louis Prima) and his monkey brethren try to discover the secret of “Man’s red flower” (fire) from Mowgli.
Tell me you’re not tapping your feet and singing along to this one.
Prima is not the only star of this movie–in fact, I’d argue that out of all of the films in the Disney Classics series released prior to the 1990s (when the notoriety of Hollywood “name” actors began to trump the use of unknown vocal talent), The Jungle Book features the best voice cast. Longtime Disney favorites Sebastian Cabot (Bagheera), J. Pat O’Malley (Colonel Hathi), and Sterling Holloway (Kaa) all make appearances, as does character actor Clint Howard (actor/director Ron Howard’s younger brother) as Hathi’s son, Junior. The movie also features Verna Felton (Hathi’s wife, Winifred), in her final voiceover role for the studio. Sadly, Felton died the day before Walt himself passed away in 1966.
And arguably trumping them all is the unmistakable purr of George Sanders as the sleek Bengal tiger, Shere Khan. The oily, charming, and always droll timbre of Sanders’ voice is absolutely perfect for the role. Listening to Shere Khan speak never fails to send a shiver up my spine.
The movie almost featured another famous set of voices. The four vultures were designed to resemble The Beatles, and in fact the original plan was to have the Fab Four provide the voices of the birds.
The only problem with this plan? The band wasn’t in on it–it had been proposed by their manager, and when informed of the proposal, the four members immediately turned it down. Still, it’s no coincidence that the vultures not only look but sound like The Beatles–vocalists Digby Wolfe, Tim Hudson, Chad Stuart, and the aforementioned O’Malley deliberately crafted their performances in deliberate homage to the band.
The Disney-fied Jungle Book characters, sans Mowgli, would later show up in the early-90s cartoon series Tale Spin, in which Baloo becomes a pilot, Louie a bar owner, and Shere Khan a ruthless businessman (this show was, admittedly, one of my favorites as a kid–I’ve seen every episode multiple times!). And the characters were again revisited in the late-90s cartoon Jungle Cubs, which portrayed the jungle critters as children.
The Jungle Book is one of the better films to come from the 60s/70s era of Disney animation, in my opinion. Combining an excellent cast with colorful animation and a great soundtrack, it has all the elements that make Disney films such an integral part of animated history.