Walt Disney was a man who was always thinking of new ideas and innovations, and in the early 60s he had plenty of them in the works. His live-action films were getting bigger and bigger, with 'Mary Poppins' an achievement in live action-animation integration, winning praise and awards. His 'Wonderful World of Disney' TV specials took advantage of the new medium as a new venue for entertainment, but also for promotion for Disney's other big projects, giving audiences sneak peeks. Disneyland was built and well received, and Disney was hard at work planning and developing a barren stretch of land in Orlando into his new resort getaway. With all this in mind, one has to wonder what the man would have accomplished if he'd lived just another decade, maybe two? Where would the Disney company be then? Unfortunately, Walt died of lung cancer in 1966, an understandably huge blow to the studio. 'The Jungle Book' was the first film to be released after his death, though Walt himself was very much involved in the project. Too bad this intro has kind of put a damper on things though; it's a whimsical, wonderful movie that hopefully audiences then and now feel truly captures the essence of Disney animation.
Based VERY loosely off Rudyard Kipling's book (Walt's first instruction to the animators: "Do not read the book."), the movie focuses on Mowgli, a young "man cub" who has been raised by wolves since infancy. However, when they hear of the vicious tiger Shere Khan's return to the jungle, the animals agree that the child must be returned to his own kind, so Bagheera, the panther who found him, must take him back. What follows is basically various encounters the two have with characters who want the boy for their own reasons. First is Baloo, a care-free bear who takes a shining to Mowgli, and vows to teach him the "bare necessities." Mowgli is then taken by monkeys to bestow to their leader King Louie, a jazz-happy orangutan who desires to learn the secrets of man's fire. There's also Kaa, a python who continuously tries to eat Mowgli, but is too bumbling to succeed, a gaggle of laid-back, but sort of solemn vultures, and of course an encounter with Shere Khan himself.
Like 'Alice in Wonderland,' this is a film that succeeds in that it's not so much about a compelling story as it is watching your main character interact with the various creatures they meet. Although there is a bit more of an ongoing force driving the movie than 'Alice'; Bagheera and Baloo sort of act like two foster parents who want the best for Mowgli, but disagree on what that is, with Baloo's carefree attitude and Bagheera's responsible air to return him to his own kind. The film is set up rather episodically (almost tailored to be later aired on 'Wonderful World of Disney' now that I think about it...), but the characters are so damn fun to watch, it's all the better it's set up that way. The animation, while nothing radically different, is stellar as always; the animals go back and forth from their animal nature to swinging and dancing like humans, but they always feel like they have weight and presence. A highlight for me is where Bagheera pushes Mowgli up a tree; you can feel the sense that the boy has mass as he presses back against the panther. It's the kind of animation where you completely forget that these are just colored drawings, it's fantastic.
Great animation aside, the movie really shines in its audio, both in voices and song. Disney had used famous radio and stage personalities in films before, but really wanted this one to be full of recognizable voices, inadvertently starting a trend that has (unfortunately) continued to this day. Musician/comedian Phil Harris gives Baloo such a jovial, lovable air, locking his character in as one of the most likable in Disney history, while jazz legend Louis Prima voices King Louie, with the "I Wanna Be Like You" number a showstopper in every sense of the word. Then of course there's the "Bare Necessities" song, a true classic as well. George Sanders gives Shere Khan a true suave, devilish tone, and almost seems like a precursor to 'The Lion King's Scar. There's also Sterling Holloway as Kaa, although hearing the slippery conniving snake speak in almost the same voice as Pooh Bear is a little unnerving. Another interesting tidbit comes with the four vultures, who sort of look and sing like the Beatles. Actually, they were originally intended to be VOICED by the Beatles, but John Lennon refused, allegedly hating the Disney company. Sourpuss. Can you imagine how cool that would have been, having the Beatles do voices and SING in a Disney movie?
So as I said, this movie shines in its characters, all of whom are kind of multi-sided. Shere Khan is the film's villain, but is more debonair and cocky than downright sinister. Kaa is sort of a threat, but it's counterbalanced by his incompetence. And King Louie is a rambunctious, fun-loving character, but it's not exactly clear what his motives are, or how far he'll be willing to go to squeeze Mowgli of information. All of these guys are counterbalanced by the flip-side of this in Baloo, the true genuine character. Idn't that sweet.
Verdict? A real fun movie, filled with absolutely fantastic performances, great music and songs, entertaining characters and top notch animation as always. It's one of the studio's more breezy and low-key movies, but in the end turns out to be one of their best.
...oh, and speaking of animation, around this point began the trend of reusing animation poses and cycles from other movies. Both a time-saving measure and also a desire to not let good animation go to waste, the scene where Baloo and Bagheera are trying to keep Mowgli away from the monkeys is nearly identical to a scene from 'Mr. Toad' where Toad and his gang are trying to get the deed to Toad Manor away from the weasels. Take a look for yourself and see. Don't know exactly what to make of this, but hey, it's only maybe thirty seconds of footage, and the studio needed to cut corners. If they re-use a little bit and can still produce phenomenal feature animation for the other 97% of the film, it's fine by me.