Ranking the Disney Canon – 8: The Jungle Book

“Ha-Ha! Man, that’s what I call a swinging party!” – Baloo

The Jungle Book holds the unfortunate distinction of being the final animated feature to be heavily worked on by Walt Disney himself. After the studio’s internal disappointment with The Sword in the Stone, Walt worked heavily with his animators and story people to make sure the characters and the story were once again the stars of the show, and a huge effort was made to make the film fun and lively, as opposed to the two mellower toned films that came before it, One Hundred and One Dalmatians and Sword in the Stone. This was done through the casting of comedian Phil Harris and singer Louis Prima in key roles, and to have The Sherman Brothers at their liveliest. Unfortunately, Walt never lived to see the finished product, as he passed away before the film’s release. His efforts, as always, shine through, and his legacy would live on not just through this film, but by continuing work of his company.

The story, based rather loosely off the Rudyard Kipling book of the same name, tells us the story of Mowgli, a young “man-cub” who is abandoned in the child as a young baby. Bagheera, the black panther, discovers the child and takes him to a family of wolves, who raise him into boyhood. When news of Shere Khan, the man hating tiger, is back in their neck of the jungle, Bagheera and the wolves agree that Mowgli must be taken back to the man village for his own safety. Mowgli, however, refuses to go, and attempts to stay with a freedom loving bear named Baloo. From there, Mowgli gets into misadventures involving Colonel Hathi and his elephant army, King Louie and his fire seeking Monkeys, British Invasion Vultures, Hypnotic Snakes, and Shere Kahn himself.

STRENGTHS

Walt said that he wanted The Jungle Book to have “the Disney touch.” And boy, does this film have The Disney Touch and then some. The Jungle Book is so much fun. It is just an absolute blast to watch from top to bottom. Obviously, there is a reason it is this high on the list, but truly, this film is extremely sharp in every scene. Every scene is alive and kicking, and so full of energy, just as Walt Disney intended. I think we are truly at the part of the list where absolutely no scene is wasted or unneeded. I told you it was hard to rank these films!

But where to begin with Jungle Book? I mean that may be the second hardest part of this list, is deciding where to start with each film. It’s tough when all these films do so many things really well. I guess I just have to start with the first thing I think of with Jungle Book, and the first thing I think of with Jungle Book is the film’s relationships.

You may remember that early in the list, poorly executed relationships were a common theme of what made a film weaker than it could be. Well, The Jungle Book is the exact opposite of that. The Relationships are extremely strong, and I mean all of the relationships. That’s what is so amazing about this film to me. EVERY relationship in this film is amazing in its own unique way. And, these relationships all add to the fun of the film in huge ways.

The core relationship of the film, and by far the strongest, is the triangle that exists between Mowgli, Baloo, and Bagheera. While we will see the classic Disney mentor-protege relationship a couple more times in this top 10, in all sorts of different ways, The Jungle Book holds a unique position for having two mentors compete to send their protegé on the right path. And, once again, it is such a fun trio to watch in action.

What make Bagheera and Baloo so appealing to watch together is that their points of views on life are so polar opposite, and yet it makes sense that they have some form a friendship together. The conversations between the strict and serious Bagheera and the fun-loving, dancing Baloo are extremely well written (As well as well performed, but we’ll get to that in a bit), and their care for Mowgli is so apparent in these sequences. In all essence, The Bagheera-Baloo relationship is like that of two parents arguing how their kid should be raised.  And it is extremely hilarious and awesome.

But of course, it  is Mowgli who is in the center of it all, and  the key to the whole puzzle. And it is Mowgli’s relationship to his potential mentors that truly brings the film together. Let’s first consider the Bagheera-Mowgli relationship. Bagheera is, of course, the parent that Mowgli doesn’t want to listen to, but Bagheera has seen Mowgli grow up, and just wants to see Mowgli protected and safe. He even is able to convince Baloo that the man village is the best idea for the child.

A fantastic sequence is one that comes after Mowgli attempted and failed to join the elephant herd, and Bagheera and Mowgli have an argument in the jungle. Bagheera allows Mowgli to go off on his own, and Mowgli meets Baloo for the first time. Baloo helps Mowgli learn to roar, and Bagheera interprets this as a sign that Mowgli is in trouble, and runs after him, regretting ever leaving Mowlgi. Of course, when Bagheera arrives, he is more upset that Mowgli met Baloo than if Mowgli would have ever been in any actual trouble.

This scene is brilliant for a couple of reasons. One, the way Bagheera reacts to Baloo, as if Baloo were the worst possible thing Mowgli could have encountered, is brilliant. I especially love that Bagheera refers to Baloo as a “shiftless stupid jungle bum” to himself, of course. It is a perfect description of their relationship. Also, right after this comment, Bagheera shares some playful, sarcastic comments that one would share between friends. It is absolutely a beautiful introduction to their friendship for the audience, and it comes to define what is so much fun about this dynamic.

This scene is also the perfect description of the relationship between Bagheera and Mowgli. Bagheera’s instant reaction to even the slightest notion that Mowgli is in trouble is an absolute treat, a treat that builds the emotions between characters to absolute perfection. This is a great way to relay emotions between characters. It seems very simple, but it is also very real, and that is  what counts. There is real emotion present in this scene, and when it is real, it can be a whole lot of fun.

And the most real and the most fun relationship present in the film is the one between Baloo and Mowgli. Seriously, this is the greatest Disney Bromance. From the moment the two appear on-screen together, as Mowgli sulks next to a rock, and Baloo dances out of the jungle, there are sparks between the two of them. It really is a match made in heaven. It is just extremely well written and so much fun to watch. The moment of Baloo attempted to calm down an angry Mowgli with a mellow boxing lesson is absolutely astonishing. It really is fantastic relationship writing. I really cannot describe its greatness in this simple paragraph or even this review. You really need to see it to believe it.

Let’s move on to the character of Baloo for a second. This is a fantastic character with an absolutely wonderful voice performance behind it. Phil Harris nails the character every step of the way, and gives one of the greatest voice performances of all time. It truly is a voice that defines the character. Baloo’s laid back attitude and, in a word, “hip” look on life is not only a perfect counterpoint to Bagheera and a perfect companion to Mowgli, as we already have mentioned, but also makes Baloo one of the greatest Disney characters of all time. He is just so much fun to watch and absolutely hilarious to encounter.

But what truly makes Baloo an amazing character is that he is able to step back from the laid backness and the hilarity for moments and actually have wonderful moments of drama. The Jungle Book is absolutely fantastic at mixing its humor and its drama, and it does this mainly through the relationship between Mowgli and Baloo. There is a fantastic scene between Bagheera and Baloo where Baloo is convinced that Mowgli needs to return to the man village. This scene is an amazing look at Baloo as a character, as he reaches down deep inside himself to realize that, he though he does not want to give up Mowgli, who, even in the short amount of time that they’ve had together, feels like a son, he knows it might be best to give him up.

And of course, it is the scene afterwards where Baloo must relate this idea to Mowgli is where we truly see the human side of the bear. This is what makes a classic character. Yes, the humor and the memorable personalities are also extremely important, but the best Disney characters are the ones that feel the most human, the most real. And Baloo certainly shows his human side through his struggles with thinking maturely, and his resistance to admit that Mowgli needs to go. The best Disney characters also grow, and throughout this film, Baloo, as well as Mowgli and even Bahgeera, certainly grow.

Of course, you also cannot lose the humor and personality that made you so great in the first place. This is true for Baloo as well. One of my favorite moments in the film actually comes near the end, when it seems that Baloo has made the ultimate sacrifice to save Mowgli from Shere Kahn, and Bahgeera is giving him the eulogy to end all eulogies. Of course, Baloo reveals that he is actually alive, but continues to play dead in order to hear Bagheera praise him to the moon. This is a wonderful mixture of drama and humor that few films are able to pull off. Of course, we are in the Top 10, so films have to be up to that quality at this point in time.

(Also, this is a wonderful character moment for Bagheera as well. Instead of being happy that Baloo is alive, he is extremely angry, and almost embarrassed, because of the bear. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.)

And then, at the end, Mowgli’s journey ends with him going back to the man village after seeing a girl for the first time. This ending is so, so brilliant, and was pushed by Walt even as some of his animators wanted Mowgli to stay with Baloo and Bagheera. But, as usual, Walt made the right call here. The film had to end with Mowgli to returning where he belongs, because the film made a point that he truly didn’t stand a chance if he stays in the Jungle, even if he has the protection of the animals. And the way that Baloo and Bagheera watch him move in, with Baloo objecting, but eventually relenting, is just more brilliant writing.

OK, so I think you can see that I’ve said a ton about our three main characters, and they are pretty much perfection in terms of what a main character can be. But, you might have also remembered me talking about how the side characters can truly make or break a film. So, does The Jungle Book succeed in this category? With flying colors.

Seriously, every single person Mowgli, Baloo, and Bagheera meet along the journey are absolutely amazing and hilarious. I said there is no wasted scene, and I absolutely mean that, and that means there is no wasted character. Every single character, every single joke, is worth it.

It all begins with Colonel Hathi and his elephant army. I’m absolute sucker for the bumbling leader characters, and Colonel Hathi is one of the best I’ve had the pleasure of laughing to. His interactions with his wife and son, his easily wavering decisions, and the way he just treats the rest of his army who clearly doesn’t want to be there are all just amazing. And he is amazing voiced by J. Pat O’Malley, one of the classic Disney Voice actors. The Colonel Hathi character is completely not fit to be a colonel, and that’s why he is one of my favorites.

Of course, one of the most memorable characters in the film in King Louis, the king of the apes, incredibly voiced by musical legend Louis Prima. Just like Baloo, Louis is “Hip” and the only thing he desires is man’s red fire, and he kidnaps Mowgli in hopes to get it. Louis Prima shows his swing all over the place here, and he is so incredibly fun to watch, just like the rest of the film.  I especially love the fact that Louis is the perfect counterpoint and companion for Baloo.

The Top 10 is full of moments that are worthy of being in the Top 10 moments of all time. The moment that Jungle Book throws into the fray is the moment where Baloo disguises himself as a monkey and does an amazing scat with King Louis to end the “I Wanna Be Like You” number. This moment is just incredible. I can’t really describe why. It’s just one of those moment where, when you see it, you are absolutely amazed by what is transpiring around you.

And this would be a perfect time to delve into the soundtrack. Of all the animated soundtracks The Sherman Brothers worked on, this is their masterpiece. “I Wanna Be Like You” is incredibly catchy and captures what makes Louis Prima so good at what he does, “Trust in Me” is an incredibly hypnotic number that is perfect for the character of Kaa, “Colonel Hathi’s March”  and it’s reprise is a perfectly catchy military song, and “That’s What Friends are For,” though easily the weakest of the film’s songs, is still a lovely number that goes into the styles of Babershop Quartet and 60s Pop.

Of course, the most classic song on the soundtrack is naturally the only one the Sherman Brothers didn’t write. “The Bare Necessities” was written by Terry Gilkyson for an earlier version of the film that had a bit more of the darker edge the original source had. The animators loved this particular song so much that they convinced Walt to leave it in even after the story direction had changed. “The Bare Necessities” alone is why Phil Harris should be commended for his performance and why Baloo is among the greatest characters in Disney history. The lyrics and the music are perfect, and this song would easily fit into any Top 10 Disney songs list. I love this song.

We should get back to the villains before we need to finish up. First, Kaa, voiced by none other than our good friend Sterling Holloway! (STERLING HOLLOWAY COUNT: 6!) This is a completely different role for Holloway than we’ve seen before. Whereas up to this point he was always in the laid back good guy role, here he plays a python looking to eat anything and everything. And it absolutely works because Holloway has a hypnotic voice to begin with. I just love the way Holloway slurs his ssssss here, and Kaa is perfectly written as a mix of a hugely confidant and yet somewhat cowardly character. And Holloway nails the performance to make this a classic character.

And while they aren’t really villains,  I should mention the vulture characters, really for the sole reason that they were meant to be voiced by The Beatles! Now, there are conflicting reports as to why this didn’t happen. Some say Lennon really wanted to do it, but the rest of the Beatles and their managers and such wanted to focus on making albums. Others say that Lennon was against it all the way, and shot it down before any discussion could be had. Seriously though, wouldn’t it have been amazing if The Beatles had done a song in a Disney film?

And we shall end our discussion of The Jungle Book with our true villain, Shere Kahn. You know what is amazing about Shere Kahn? He doesn’t show up until halfway through the film. And he doesn’t need to. By the time he shows up, there is already an aura around him because everybody has talked about how dangerous he is. And we get to see why: he is as smart as he is strong. The absolutely brilliant casting choice of George Sanders, who is probably best known for his role as Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, pays of in spades. One of the best scenes in the film is when George Sanders is being George Sanders as Shere Kahn talks to Kaa about the whereabouts of Mowgli. Shere Kahn’s intellect is what makes him a memorable villain, even if he is only in the film for a couple of minutes.

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

The best song is by far “The Bare Necessities.” Go look it up on Youtube or Buy it on iTunes and just listen to the brilliance of the lyrics.

The best scene in the film is the “I Wanna Be Like You” number. It perfectly describes everything about this film: The relationships, the music, the characters, and the fun.

CLOSING COMMENTS

The Jungle Book is among the most purely fun films in the Disney Canon, and also does a fantastic job with Character, Drama, and Song, as any great Disney film should. I’ve said almost 3000 words about it. Just go watch it. It’s in the Top 10 on my list, and it might be on yours too.

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2 thoughts on “Ranking the Disney Canon – 8: The Jungle Book

  1. The jazzy tone the film presents itself, while carefully layering a bit of drama to add to the realism of the cast’s relationships, is definitely what makes ‘The Jungle Book’ an entertaining film to watch from start to finish. Every instance where Mowgli finds himself in trouble, meeting new friends, and his eventual confrontation with the Tiger that his friends tried to lead him away from all prove why The Jungle Book is that much of a fun time. Of course, there will come other adaptations of ‘The Jungle Book’ (Hell, there was even an adaptation long before this film made the screens) but there is hardly an argument to disprove that this version is much more entertaining. It’s memorable voice work, The Sherman brothers at their best with their songs, and the enjoyable atmosphere of the jungle makes the film an unforgettable experience. Now word has it that a new broadway musical will be made based on this film and for what we know of it (Or lack thereof) I anxiously hope that the musical itself keeps to the spirit of what makes this film so entertaining to watch.

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