Tuesday, January 3, 2012

DATE Night: The Jungle Book

How about this? Let's kind of pretend that our last DATE Night, the one where we spent an hour and a bit of our lives that we'll never get back in King Arthurs's court with odd duck The Sword in the Stone, had never happened. If that were the case, then we would still be riding high on the triumph of 101 Dalmatians, and the decline in quality of Disney's animated features would be much less pronounced than the abrupt end to the second golden age that Merlin & Company conjured for us. As I warned you, this period is marked by artistic inconsistency, with huge artistic pendulum swings from brilliant to boring, sometimes within one film. The Jungle Book, luckily is definitely a step up. If not at the level of what Disney animators are capable of at best, it's still fun, breezy, well-done and artistically solid.

The Background:

One of Bill Peet's story sketches.
After the less than stellar performance of The Sword in the Stone, master story man Bill Peet, who was one of the driving forces behind the previous two films, brought the idea of adapting Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book to Walt. After getting approval, he drafted a film that kept the dark tone of the novel. Walt wanted to assert his presence more than he had on the past several animated features and insisted that the film be lightened up. The two passionate men couldn't find middle ground, Peet (who had been at Disney since just after Snow White) left his job at the Studio, and Walt guided the film in the more lighthearted, emotional, character-driven direction he envisioned. The movie would prove to be the final animated classic to have Walt's direct fingerprints on it.

Walt Disney died in December of 1966 and the film was released almost a year later in October of 1967. Critical praise was abundant, owing in part, no doubt, to the nostalgia related to Walt's passing, and box office numbers were extremely strong. Several of the songs have since become standards and the characters have a pretty steady presence on TV, in spinoffs and in the parks. The Jungle Book has been pegged in our collective conscience as one of the better Disney animated features, remembered fondly and widely enjoyed by new generations. Depending on how much of a stickler you want to be about such things, the movie could probably be considered part of the second golden age of Disney animation, thoughits predecessor, The Sword in the Stone, definitely couldn't. I feel like it's the last glimpse of greatness breaking through before the canon falls into a shadowy pit of overall mediocrity, but even at its charming best, The Jungle Book still can't really compare with the absolute brilliance of the films from Cinderella to 101 Dalamatians.

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 13: The Jungle Book. It had some strong characters and some fun animation, but overall, I didn't love it. It felt pretty episodic and I have not been a fan of the Xerox line that was so charming in "101 Dalmatians". Some of Mowgli's faces are adorable and I like the baby elephant. The ending seemed a bit out of left field. It was better than the last film but not great.
February 12, 2010 at 11:44am ·

The Art:

Gorgeous background work.
7/10. There is a lot that is lovely here and the film has an aesthetic all its own. The quality of the artistry here has increased substantially since The Sword in the Stone. The backgrounds, infused with a lot of richness and detail, look great here and always fully support the story as does the choice of colors utilized. Shots of the lush greenery, the gorgeous ruins, the green forest behind the vultures and the final shot with its stunning lighting change are especially impressive. The background behind the "dead" Baloo is grey and looks like it is weeping. The effects animation, evident in the moonlight, water and mist of the jungle setting, are top notch again, giving depth to details that had been neglected last time around.

Those sketchy elephants.
All of this is well-intergrated with the Xeroxed, sketchy quality of the characters (especially noticeable in the elephants). It feels like an artistic decision here, informed by the rough and tumble story being told, rather than an economic one. The character animation is stellar here, which isn't surprising when you consider how much focus the characters were given in this film. Notice how watching Mowgli trying to climb a tree, bounding up rocks, bear fighting with Baloo and marching with the elephants tells you as much about his character as the words that come out of his mouth. The fluid quality to Kaa's complicated snake body is something only great artists could get on celluloid so well. Everything is done so skillfully that it feels completely natural but it's given a touch of whimsy to heighten reality and give things a little punch. Even details as specific as Mowgli's crinkly nose or Baloo's expressive tongue are given special care. All of the details add up to some of the the most impressive character animation of any Disney animated film.

The Story:

Jumpin' and jivin', indeed.
7/10. After a classic storybook opening, we are launched into yet another episodic adventure story. We all know how well that went for us last time (meaning not well at all), but here it somehow works. Why? First off, the characters are much stronger this time around, giving more emotional heft to the proceedings. You genuinely care about what happens on their journey, keeping you invested throughout. There is also one overriding arc (that of Mowgli making his way safely back to the man village) that each of the escapades clearly fit into. The story is constantly being propelled forward and, instead of going from lesson to lesson, we move clearly through a plot that lets us glean our own morals from it, if we so choose. The action sequences are done masterfully here. The jokes and elements that would be out of place in the world of the story land instead of crashing with a thud. There is also something intangible at work in the film's success- a magic and charm here that makes it all work. I must say that in the end I agree with Walt about keeping the overall tone light with a few menacing touches. Letting the story get too heavy saps the essential element of joy out of the proceedings. It's a hard to strike a balance between the light and dark, but Disney at is best is masterful at it. They did an impressive job juggling the two here.

The Characters:

Don't it just make you all weepy? Just me? Ah...
8/10. Here we have the strongest aspect of the movie. All of the major and supporting characters are surprisingly dimensional with few exceptions and even the background figures are amusingly rendered. Some take umbrage with the fact that "name" performers were used and their personalities were integrated into the characters, but they are such good matches for who they portray here that any argument against their presence feels terribly hollow. Now, over 40 years after the film's debut, names like Phil Harris and Louis Prima are known to generations better as Baloo and King Louie than as the stars they were otherwise back in the day. It feels less like laziness (which will creep in when Phil Harris plays barely changed incarnations of himself in The Aristocats and Robin Hood as well) and more like a successful attempt to inject some life into the proceedings.

Ladies ain't nuthin' but trouble, kid.
All of the characters are wonderfully animated, with the slightly messy, Xerox style lines, and voiced brilliantly. They really tick, full of interesting details and emotional resonance. Mowgli, is performed by director Wolfgang Reitherman's son Bruce. (Along with Clint Howard, brother to Ron, as adorable little elephant Junior it enters the pantheon of magical child performances in Disney animated films.) He is the emotional center of the story and we experience the film more or less through his eyes, and since we relate to him easily, we become invested in what will happen to him. We love Baloo and Bagheera automatically because they are his main protectors. As the ultimate cool uncle figure and the parental protective type, these two make a very interesting couple whose contrasting personalities shine through in both the way they are drawn, which brilliantly marries animal behavior with human traits, and the vocal performances of hep cat Phil Harris and measured Sebastian Cabot.

They must be contemplating a lisp-off.
These strong core characters are surrounded by a cast of wonderfully conceived, rendered and performed supporting roles. There is no one central antagonist, but several great smaller ones fill the void, even if none of them rank among the Disney villain greats. Sterling Holloway (Winnie the Pooh, The Cheshire Cat) makes the most of his off-beat voice as the compelling and repellant Kaa, Shere Khan, voiced by George Sanders is appropriately menacing, and King Louie captures what is dangerous and exciting about jazz music in the performance of Louis Prima. Other smaller roles that make maximum impact in minimum screen time include Verna Felton (who also played an elephant in Dumbo, along with the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella and the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland) in her last screen role as Colonel Hathi's wife Winifred and the rest of the elephant brigade, the group of mop-topped vultures, and the many monkey subjects of King Louie. The only character that feels unduly empty is Shanti, the girl who coaxes Mowgli to the village by singing and making eyes at him. Having brilliant and grounded reaction shots of all three characters watching her only highlights how much she is a plot point rather than a character. In a film where pitch perfect characterizations reign, it feels like a missed opportunity. 

The Music:

Another gorgeous jungle shot.
7/10. Once again the score here is the work of the masterful George Bruns, who, like the rest of the creative team, is back in fine form after surprisingly forgettable work in The Sword in the Stone. The sound is appropriately mysterious and lovely for the jungle setting. Bruns is wonderful at making music that provides an emotional guide for the viewer and does not disappoint here. Listen in the key scene of Baloo's death for the tune of "The Bare Necessities" rearranged for the organ and played as a dirge. It's a brilliant way to pay tribute to a "lost" character in a potent way.

A fun side note for me, a huge 1964-1965 New York World's Fair fan, is that some of the music from the film was originally written for and used at the Fair. The fluttering flute theme that appears early on and becomes the major musical statement of the movie first appeared in The Ford Magic Skyway, which was created by WED Enterprises (aka Disney Imagineering). In the queue, miniatures were constructed of different far-off places to keep the visitors engaged while they waited for the ride. George Bruns scored the attraction and one of the areas contained a fantastic piece called "Serengeti Serenade". This is the piece of music that later became one of the major themes in The Jungle Book. I realized it when Tom and I were in the car on the way to Disneyland with all my Disney music on shuffle and it started playing. Tom got all excited about it, saying that he loved the score from The Jungle Book. I looked down at my iPod and clear as day, it was from my Walt Disney and the 1964 World's Fair CD set (which is completely amazeballs). I guess it goes to prove that reusing elements isn't the problem. It's all about how well you reuse them and if they are a good fit in there new home. Here, the music was as perfect a match for the jungles of India as it was the Serengeti Plains.

Best. Backscratch. Ever.
The songs here are, with one major exception, the work of the Sherman Brothers. The only song that they didn't write was "The Bare Necessities", which was part of a score written by Terry Gilkyson (who worked on several other less remembered Disney projects including the ever elusive Dr. Syn: or the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh) for the darker incarnation of the story. When that adaptation was canned, so was Gilkyson's score, but Walt was convinced to keep the one upbeat number of the batch and "The Bare Necessities" has since become a standard, and deservedly so, since it is arguably the best number in the song stack. It perfectly captures the character of Baloo and his carefree, folky spirit. They even manage to turn a backscratch into a dance break, which I can completely relate to.

The Beatles...uh...Monkees...uh...Vultures.
The contributions here by the Shermans are far better than what they created for The Sword in the Stone. Three are more or less pastiches, which the Shermans excel at, establishing characters by giving them a familiar musical voice and all work quite well. "Colonel Hathi's March" puts the elephants immediately into a military light, "That's What Friends Are For" is an odd but clever mixture of the Beatles' style with a barbershop quartet arrangement, and, most successfully, "I Wanna Be Like You" has a jazzy exuberance that is wild in both a fun and a dangerous way. The latter is helped tremendously by Louis Prima and his band's unique musical voice. Though these numbers may be out of place in a realistic depiction of the jungles of India a hundred years ago, they make sense in the story because of how well they support the story and, especially, the characters. It's also just plain easier to suspend your disbelief when the songs are this good.

This just makes me giggle.
The two other songs in the score are Kaa's "Trust in Me" and "My Own Home", which is sung by the girl that draws Mowgli into the village. "Trust in Me" is pretty fantastic, telling us all that we need to know about Kaa with a creepy melody and manipulative lyric and moving the story along as Kaa uses the song to tempt Mogwli to his doom. It gives me the heebie jeebies every time I hear it, yet it is hypnotic at the same time, which is exactly the kind of song that the character would sing. "My Own Home", on the other hand, feels rather generic to me and it seems odd to hear the voice of a twenty-something ingenue come out of the mouth of a character who looks about ten years old. It makes logical sense to utilize everyday human activities as the lyrics to a song that brings Mowgli to the man village, but those lyrics barely register as we cut back and forth to Baloo and Bagheera with the boy and the girl's song. The character feels more like a deus ex machina than someone that we care about at all. Since the only things she does is swoop in and sing this song, we care far less about the words coming out of her mouth than the other characters' reaction to them. 

The Gay Scale:

Baloo is wearin' the heck outta that skirt.
6/10. It is pretty easy to layer a gay read on The Jungle Book. It's about a young man who has been abandoned by his birth family and in search of an identity. He was raised by an adoptive family and a community that watches over him, knowing that he is an outsider in need of protection and acclimation to a new world and life that lies before him. This sense of reliance on a community outside the family is a common gay narrative. Now, this read may prove a bit troubling considering that Mowgli goes back to the man village to be "normal" again in the end, heeding the siren's call of a girl with a jug on her head. Who knows? Maybe Marcus Bachmann has set up reparative therapy there. Also, Shere Khan is a sexually ambiguous villain in a way that Scar in The Lion King will harken back to many years later.

What a cute couple.
The most interesting and valid read was pointed out to me this last time watching the film, and that is the idea that Baloo and Bagheera are co-parenting Mowgli. When it was mentioned, it threw the whole movie into an interesting new light to me. Bagheera is the more motherly figure, cautious, gentle and encouraging, trying to get Mowgli to leave the nest. Baloo (despite his impressive foray into Paris is Burning territory to give us hula monkey realness) is the father figure, bringing out the adventurous and scrappy parts of Mowgli's personality. They are a yin and yang that cooperate to help him on his journey. The fact that they become parental figures to him gives the film emotional weight, which becomes very obvious when Baloo "dies" at the end of the film. We are so moved because we have grown to love him as a cool dad, just like Mowgli has. That final shot of the two of them walking into the sunset together just seals the deal.

The Bottom Line:

Mowgli and Baloo as hotel decorations at
the Art of Animation resort in WDW.
7/10. If not at the level of what Disney animators are capable of at best, The Jungle Book is still fun, breezy, well-done and artistically solid, with brilliant characters, great songs, an evocative score, emotional depth, a lot of heart and charm to spare. My opinion of it is actually quite a bit higher this time watching than when I saw it for the first time as an adult in 2010. I think I was still so miffed by what the Xerox process had wrought artistically that I was being blind to what was lovely and done so right here. It feels like most of what The Sword and the Stone got wrong, The Jungle Book gets right. It's like the creators wanted to prove that they could take the elements that made the former a failure and get them to work. Work they did, giving us an episodic adventure story with elements that don't belong in the jungles of India at the turn of the last century. The difference here is the palpable joy, the relatable and lovable characters, the clear story arc, and the more ambitious artistry. I have really come around to dig on The Jungle Book in a major way. Solid.

The Miscellanea:

I knew there would be a fairly large chunk of videos this week, and I found some really weird and awesome gems. First off is a clip that features footage of Louis Prima performing "I Wanna Be Like You" with his band. It's very cool to see the way that they really physically based King Louie and the other monkeys on Prima and his band. (By the way, Disney released a limited edition Archive Collection CD of Let's Fly With Mary Poppins featuring Louis and his wife Gia Maione doing swingin' versions of songs from the great Sherman Brothers score. Though some CDs in the series are expensive and hard to track down, it's easy to find cheap copies on Amazon of this one, and it's worth it for the awesome "Sister Suffragette" and Italian version of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" alone. PS I love the fact that "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" wasn't autocorrected!)

Journey Into the Jungle Book was one of the opening day attractions at Animal Kingdom when it debuted in 1998 and it lasted for a year before being replaced with a Tarzan stage show. I have come to have a newfound appreciation for theme park shows over my last few visits as Tom and I decided to stop avoiding them like the plague. Several have been pleasant surprises and Finding Nemo the Musical  at Animal Kingdom now is one of the best shows playing anywhere in the country. This one, however, seems a bit flat. The elephants have two legs. There's a trampoline that is supposed to telegraph carefree joy but instead induces flop sweat. The design and puppetry (save for the impressive Shere Khan) are not terribly imaginative and look bleak. Mowgli is too old. It feels like an amateur hour highlights reel rather than a fully-formed stage show. But if it took starting here to get us to shows like Finding Nemo, then so be it. Gotta start somewhere.

With The Jungle Book's enduring popularity, some sequel action was all but inevitable. There was an animated series called Talespin. Debuting in 1990, when I was 10 years old, it uses familiar characters from the movie, but in a completely different context, so it's not really a proper sequel. I vaguely remember from my childhood and had friends who were all about it, but I think I was too busy watching Hey Dude on Nickelodeon or doing something dorky like reading to pay it much mind at the time. But that theme song sure sounds familiar!

They released an actual sequel to the original film in 2003. Jungle Book 2 was released into theaters instead of going direct to video first, though it hardly set the box office on fire. I haven't seen it yet, but from plot synopses and trailers, it looks pretty derivative and artless. It doesn't take much imagination to come up with a story where Mowgli gets bored in the village and wants to go back to the jungle. It's obvious to the point of insulting, which is often status quo in these low-quality, brand-diluting, money-grubbing sequels. Props should be given, though, for the brilliant casting of John Goodman as Baloo.

This is a Jungle Book video game from the early nineties. I'm mostly including it because the pixelated awesomeness of this era of gaming makes me giggle. I'm not very good at video games, for the most part, but my husband, Tom, is a fierce gamer. He could probably blow through this puppy in an afternoon while I sat next to him on the couch, reading.

Someone with a lot of patience assembled this video showing reused animation in The Jungle Book. I'm not gonna lie and say the recycled bits weren't noticeable. We even commented on them while watching for DATE Night, but they never detracted from our enjoyment of the film. Seeing them all strung together like this, however, is kind of eye-opening. They were really up against a wall and being forced to take short cuts that they never would have dreamed of taking during the golden ages. I mean, the animators balked at first about having live model reference footage, and now they were borrowing animation from the self-same movie they were using it in? Wowza.

If the opening bit of this next video is to be believed, there was a sequel planned for The Jungle Book back in the day. The film never came to fruition but some of the songs, such as this one called "Jungle Fever", survived as an album called More Jungle Book. It's not bad, but not in quite the same league as the songs from the original. I'm glad they left well enough alone. At least for a few decades until they trotted out Jungle Book 2.

This is the first I've heard of the ToonTown Tuners, who are a saxophone group that played in Walt Disney World, though I'm not sure if they still do. Regardless, they are quite impressive. This is them performing a medley of Jungle Book songs.

I have been a fan of Scottish singer/songwriter Paolo Nutini for several years. His album These Streets is in the same raspy, Brit soul vein as James Morrison and I love it. He bubbled up for a bit a few years ago and then faded away again, sadly. I had no idea that he did a cover of "I Wanna Be Like You" in his live act until I was preparing this blog entry. It is fully awesome. Please to enjoy, and then seek out These Streets. I promise you'll likey.

Of course Big Bad Voodoo Daddy would cover "I Wanna Be Like You". And of course it would rock my socks off. There was never any doubt.

This is Craig David (Remember when he was a thing? Yeah...me neither.) showing everybody how to decimate a Disney classic like "I Wanna Be Like You". Dannii Minogue should be mortified for unleashing this onto an undeserving public. He has taken all of the groove and heat out of one of the swingingest numbers know to man and turned it into an undercooked slow jam. For shame.

I was really surprised at the number of interesting covers of "Trust In Me" that were floating around. This one is from Selena Gomez, who, along with Miley Cyrus, is making me reconsider my burning dislike of former Disney Channel tween moppets. This version shows a pop star who is obvious trying to grow up and be a bit "dangerous", but can't fight the bubblegum in her soul. I enjoy it immensely. (Sorry, Tom.)

Now, for something completely different. Siouxsie and the Banshees managed to do a cover of "Trust In Me" that truly is dangerous. It's creepy and alluring and offbeat. This is how to subvert a Disney song, ladies and gents. This makes me want a Florence + the Machine Disney cover album to happen. Who can arrange that, please and thanks?

This version of "Trust in Me" is by a British singer of Indian descent named Susheela Raman. It's got a world music flair to it and her voice is very interesting and expressive. This version actually feels like it would be right at home in the film itself.

This last version of "Trust in Me" is by the Holly Cole Trio, and it may be the sexiest interpretation of the song that has ever been recorded. Holly Cole is a Canadian jazz singer who is quite well-respected and I've loved her ever since hearing her definitive version of "Calling You". She has a rich, smoky voice that really wraps around a lyric and makes something special out of it. Her albums usually contain surprising covers that you wouldn't expect to be done in her style, yet make complete sense when you her her arrangements. If you want more, I recommend her album Dear Dark Heart that has a smashing cover of "River" or the live It Happened One Night album that has her sublime "Calling You". 

This sixties-riffic studio recording "The Bare Necesssities" is from one of the Disneyland records that proliferated back in the day. It's good for a chuckle.

Here is Louis Armstrong doing "The Bare Necessities". It is the definition of perfection. You can find it on the Disney Songs the Satchmo Way album, which is one of my favorite Disney CDs ever. It is essential.

I'm not a huge fan of reggae, which has a deep rooted association with homophobia, but this Disney Reggae Club album exists. Steel Pulse's version of "The Bare Necessities" is good times, if this kind of thing is your jam.

This is Astrud Gilberto, best known as the bossa nova singer from "The Girl From Impanema" doing "The Bare Necessities" with her son. It is completely charming.

Just when I had given up hope of finding a fun cover of "My Own Home", which was mostly represented by tweens armed with a karaoke track staring straight into the camera and being overly earnest, I found this dude playing it on the theremin. It's totes boss.

So, what do you think? Does The Jungle Book fall under the banner of the second golden age of Disney animation or does it just miss? Do you even think it's good enough to deserve the distinction? How do you feel about the direction that the films are heading? Am I too critical of the era's animated films? For our next DATE Night we will be traveling back to turn of the (twentieth) century France with a stop in a jazz club / attic sprinkled with late-sixties psychedelia for The Aristocats. If you bring hallucinogens, that's your thing, man, but I'm not nursing you out of your bad trip. I'll be too busy practicing my Eva Gabor accent. Sorry bout it.

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