Personal Overview: my own introduction to Rudyard Kipling’s tales of Mowgli the man cub and his jungle dwelling friends and enemies was via the book. I think I got it cheap, but it made an impression. I was fascinated with the stories about genuine wild children for quite some time afterwards.
I think what attracted me to the stories in the first place was the fact that I was a cub, and in the scout movements (cubs are what you do before you’re old enough to be a scout) the leaders of the various ‘packs’ take names from The Jungle Book. In my own cub hall we had an Akela, a Tabaqui (that’s the jackal, he doesn’t appear in the film) and a Bagheera. Our Bagheera was a lady and for that reason I have trouble seeing Bagheera as anything other than female, even though the character is male.
They were screening the cartoon locally at the time when I read the book. My mother and I tried to attend, but there were public transport problems and by the time we managed to arrange to actually get to the cinema it wasn’t being shown anymore, so this was my first proper view of it.
Like with most of these things that have become classics I tend to have complete knowledge of what I’m going into, but I still get some surprises.
I had some problems with Sebastian Cabot as Bagheera, but that’s partly because of my association with the character as female and also because to me Sebastian Cabot will always be Mr French from Family Affair.
Overall what they did with this film, in taking some of the stories from the book and crafting them into Bagheera’s mission to return Mowgli to his own kind before Shere Khan can cause total and complete havoc in his attempt to kill the man cub was a clever way to structure it and they were able to build a complete narrative around the concept. Phil Harris’ Baloo captured the spirit of the character and his relationship with Bagheera was also very similar to how the two bantered in the original literary work.
Either Walt Disney himself, or someone involved with the stories really liked jazz music, because weirdly enough that’s what the music in The Jungle Book is.
Although this film was released after Walt Disney’s death, he was heavily involved with the making of it and that’s pretty obvious.
After the disappointment that was The Sword in the Stone, the animation department at Disney was happy to go back to an ‘animal film’, because everyone concerned thought they did them better.
Hero/es: there are three of them. Mowgli himself, although he gets Bagheera and Baloo into more trouble than he saves either of them from, and his behaviour can make you understand the panther’s sheer frustration with him. I think I would have been tempted to eat him and save Shere Khan the trouble. The level headed and compassionate Bagheera is another hero and finally the carefree, but powerful and fun loving Baloo rounds out the trio. Baloo often provides a bit of comic relief in the stories and he serves the same function in the film, which is why casting comedian Phil Harris was a good move.
Villain/s: it’s always nice to have a decent villain and the urbane tiger Shere Khan voiced by George Sanders made a nicely chilling one, as did the creepy hypnotist python Kaa. I really like tigers, so it distresses me a little that they chose to make one the baddie. To be honest I would have liked more Shere Khan in the film.
Cuteness Factor: it’s not a big thing in this film, but the honour has to go to Junior, Colonel Hathi the elephant commander’s, son. Like I said in Dumbo baby elephants are cute, and when they can talk even more so. Mowgli himself is kind of cute and the idea of casting vultures who looked and sounded like The Beatles was an odd move that doesn’t really work, but it does give them a bit of a cute factor they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Animation: the story moves along at a cracking pace, but a lot of the animation seems to be on auto pilot. The best animated characters are the elephants, for some reason Disney have always done good elephants. The cats in particular are unconvincing, although Kaa was well done and you have to like the shapes he can bend his body into.
Final Words: it’s a better adaptation of a classic work than The Sword in the Stone was, and it has some good moments, but it’s disjointed and only gets a pass mark from me. It’s a shame that to some extent one of the franchises lesser entries marks the passing of the company’s founder.