Walt Disney’s first significant success as an animator came from the Alice Comedies, a series of short films begun in 1923 in his Kansas City-based Laugh-O-Gram studio, which Disney headed and continued after he and his collaborators moved to California. In these one-reelers, a little girl named Alice (played by different actresses at various points in the series) spends time in a cartoon wonderland filled with antic-prone creatures. Decades later, Disney’s animation career ended with his work on The Jungle Book, an adaptation of some Rudyard Kipling stories. Released in 1967, the year after Disney’s death, the film serves as a fitting bookend.
The Alice Comedies frequently put their heroine in danger, but they feel weightless. They’re as much magic trick as art, showcasing the wonders of a form that was then still novel. Employing the corner-cutting xerographic process introduced in 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book isn’t the most beautiful or technically advanced Disney film, and its episodic structure makes it far from the most compelling story in the classic Disney canon. But its tale of another child lost in the cartoon wilds, one as fraught with a sense of danger and as emotionally moving as anything Disney touched, let him bow out with a film that shows how far animation’s abilities to thrill and move had progressed over the years, and how much his studio had to do with moving it forward.
Featuring a cast filled with well-known entertainers, The Jungle Book relied more heavily on familiar voices than any previous Disney film. That includes the actor cast as Mowgli, the boy protagonist voiced by Bruce Reitherman. Son of the film’s director, Wolfgang Reitherman, Bruce had recently voiced Christopher Robin in Disney’s short “Winnie The Pooh And The Honey Tree,” but here he plays a different, more willful kid who interacts with animals in an environment less forgiving than the Hundred-Acre Wood. Discovered as an infant by the panther Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot), Mowgli is raised by a family of kindly wolves. But word gets out that the unforgiving tiger Shere Khan (voiced by George Sanders, and animated to convey his world-weary expressions) will soon return to their corner of the jungle and make killing the boy a priority. Though unconcerned, the now-near-adolescent Mowgli soon ends up on a journey back to the “Man-Village” in Bagheera’s company. They’re soon joined by the easygoing sloth bear Baloo (Phil Harris), and the film moves from one song-filled encounter with jungle creatures to the next as the trip progresses.
It’s in no hurry. Pokily paced for a 78-minute movie, The Jungle Book counts on winning characters and memorable songs to carry it along. That turns out to be a safe bet. The film’s most famous number, Baloo’s statement-of-purpose “The Bare Necessities,” comes from Terry Gilkyson, who completed several never-used tracks for the film before being replaced by Disney favorites Richard and Robert Sherman (who’d recently provided the songs for Mary Poppins). Every one of the bunch is memorable, and each plays gracefully into the action of the film. The jazzy “I Wanna Be Like You,” performed by the Louis Prima-voiced orangutan King Louie, is as seductive in its own way as the hypnotic “Trust In Me,” sung by Sterling Holloway as Kaa the python, in a sinister twist on Holloway’s genial Winnie The Pooh voice. Both songs, in their own way, are designed to draw Mowgli deeper into danger.
There are several different ways to read Mowgli’s journey to civilization. Walt Disney’s grandniece Abigail Disney, an activist and filmmaker, recently made headlines by citing The Jungle Book as proof of Walt’s racism. “Racist,” she wrote on Facebook, “C’mon he made a film (Jungle Book) about how you should stay ‘with your own kind’ at the height of the fight over segregation!” It takes a lot of squinting to see The Jungle Book as a pro-segregationist screed, but not much to see elements of the film as continuing the Disney stereotyping and paternalism that produced Song Of The South. That’s evident in the choice to use caricatured African-American dialects (provided by white Leo DeLyon and the comedy team of Bill Skiles and Pete Henderson) as monkey characters. And it doesn’t take much of a stretch to find the colonialist attitudes of Kipling, originator of the phrase “white man’s burden,” in King Louie’s number, which has him standing amid ancient Indian ruins, telling a human, “I wanna be like you.” (Though the character’s personality is just Prima’s cartoonish stage persona, in animated form.)
But it would be a mistake to let this overwhelm the film’s pleasures, and it distracts from Mowgli’s ultimately moving journey from perilous but carefree childhood toward the rewarding responsibilities of adulthood. The happy ending feels anything but: Lured away by a beautiful girl, Mowgli willingly leaves his animal friends behind. In a film that’s been dedicated to the whimsical allure of its jungle world, his departure registers as a trade-off, and not necessarily an even one. It’s another variation on a familiar story: Alice has to wake up. Mowgli has to leave the jungle. But here, there’s a real loss in putting the dream world behind, and in the years between his first films and his last, Disney and those who worked with and under him kept finding new ways to make their animated worlds more alluring, more sophisticated in their ability to delight, and better able to mirror real-world fears and desires. Alice’s companions caper and jape against a flat backdrop; Mowgli’s live and breathe in a verdant paradise. It’s a long way from one point to the next, and without Disney, it’s possible, even likely, animation might never have gotten there.
Key features: Making its Blu-ray debut, the film looks better than in any previous home-video incarnation. Beyond that, its special features are a mixed bag. Good features found on the previous DVD, including a commentary track and the storyboard of a lost scene, get ported over to the new edition, where they’re joined by a mix of features targeted squarely at kids (A “Bear-E-Oke” sing-along) and designed to promote other Disney ventures, like the Animal Kingdom park. The best new feature re-creates a never-filmed alternate ending, which is both more elaborate and much less elegant, and would have brought back virtually every character Mowgli previously encountered to do battle with an evil hunter. Thankfully, the bare necessities won out.