On The Jungle Book

Richard Gorey







Recently, the Disney film The Jungle Book was released in a “Golden Edition” DVD and this article is not meant to be a review of the DVD edition but rather an assessment of the film as art and as an historical document—a piece of the Disney legacy of animated classics.

Jungle Book has been released several times on home video before, (and don’t get me started on the manipulation and calculation of the whole “Golden Edition” thing) so one must ask what new features might make this version worth buying. There are several documentaries on the film, but in this context the term “documentary” must be interpretive. What these featurettes are, in actuality, are somewhat self-congratulatory pieces in which ex and current employees speak of their affection for the film--which is sincere, eloquent, and occasionally embarrassing.

Jungle Book has pleased many people over the years, and for several reasons it’s been accepted as one of the studio’s “classics”. One of the things said of the film in the featurettes on the disc is that it’s “one of the great jewels in the Disney crown”. This opinion is offered by one of the film’s musicians, Richard Sherman (who incidentally did not write the film’s most remembered song, The Bare Necessities). Glen Keane, animator on features from The Rescuers to the current Rapunzel, says, “as an animator it is probably one of the greatest films in terms of character development and how characters play against one another.” Historian Richard Sibley says, “I love The Jungle Book. I love it for its vitality, for its vivacity, for its sheer outrageousness.”

Millions of fans agree, but is the film truly a classic merely because its characters interact in such an endearing way? Is “outrageousness” an appropriate quality (or description) of a film based on the mysterious, mythic, and stately stories of Rudyard Kipling?

This year, for my birthday, someone gave me the Jungle Book DVD, knowing I used to be an animator. I had a few friends over to watch it on my home theater screen, and I assumed the evening would be a pleasant way to reacquaint myself with this film, which I’ve never warmed to. About fifteen minutes into the screening, all of my guests wandered out of the room, and when one of them returned with snackage, he said, “If you want to finish this, that’s fine, but it’s not grabbing me at all.”

I’ve always had the same impression of The Jungle Book, which as animation I find compelling, but as entertainment and good storytelling is one of the weakest cartoon features from the Disney studios.

I gather from the many people who admire the film that it’s the interaction between the boy, Mowgli, and the bear, Baloo that captivates them. They will sing The Bare Necessities from memory, and will talk about how funny certain scenes are. I suppose they are funny--or at least diverting, but the film’s status as “a jewel in the Disney crown” seems tenuous to those who appreciate the strength of stories in other features like Beauty and the Beast (which has a superior score) One Hundred and One Dalmatians (which has equally strong relationships, and suspense and momentum) and Lady and the Tramp (which offsets an amiably modest story with romance and a bit of adventure in its final reels).

The Jungle Book would not have become an animated film without the input or inspiration of story man and author Bill Peet, who brought Rudyard Kipling’s classic to Disney’s attention. There are several differing accounts of this relationship in the DVD documentaries, and several of the participants speak fondly of Peet, whom they call “one of the great story men of all time.”

But in these interviews there’s the sense Peet existed and created in the shadow of Walt himself, whom everyone calls “the best storyteller ever.”

He might have been a strong advocate of good stories, but there was a reason Disney depended so heavily on Peet’s expertise and communication skills. Whatever Disney’s talents as a storyteller, he was a businessman first, and his other duties as head of the studio dictated he could not act out, storyboard, or animate the films his name appears on (though even today, millions of people believe he did just that, since the Disney legacy and publicity machinery are so powerful).

Though each man may have his own prejudices and imperfections, I found it useful to go to Peet’s autobiography for his side of the story (he died in 2002, so it’s impossible for anyone to know just how he felt about what was done to his original inspiration, today).

Though Peet’s influence and style are integral aspects of practically all the Disney features from Pinocchio on, his relationship with his famous boss was an uneasy thing from the beginning. In Peet’s autobiography, he speaks frankly but not cruelly of his time at the studio, and his sharp powers of observation enabled Peet to assess the weaknesses, foibles, and inconsistencies in Walt’s character without attacking the man’s accomplishments.

Peet felt that Walt’s distractions in the late fifties and early sixties (television, his miniature railroad, and his theme parks) kept the boss from being more completely involved in the production of the feature films. Sleeping Beauty, for all its opulence, didn’t do very well in theaters. Disney historians are fond of saying Beauty is now the second most lucrative film--box office wise--of 1959, second only to Ben Hur, but at the time the animated epic fared only moderately and the Ben Hur comparison is in adjusted dollars, the result of several reissues and video sales. One Hundred and One Dalmatians, a film Peet single-handedly storyboarded, was a hit, but Peet’s involvement in it was the result of studio shake-up, not actual planning.

“There had been changes, and the jobs that had been done by twenty people were now being done by one, or two or three,” Peet said, years later. His storyboarding of Dalmatians resulted in a film that took the essence of Dodie Smith’s terrific book, boiled it down to the most engaging and suspenseful essentials, and delivered a tight narrative that worked well.

The Sword in the Stone was less successful, and by the time Jungle Book arrived, Walt was older, he was ill (with cancer that would eventually take his life) and his patience with the work of others had become short. There are many accounts of Walt’s personality as a boss that come off as unflattering, but history will never view him as a villain or as a controlling monster. He was, more than a storyteller or a weaver of dreams, a businessman. This may seem like a dirty word in today’s society, but it’s meant as a compliment. Disney’s greatest genius (no matter what his fans and devoted employees say) wasn’t his ability to wring tears or laughter at a meeting, it was to surround himself with talented people who could deliver the image and reality of what he saw in his head in early meetings.

Richard Sibley says in one of the Jungle Book featurettes, “Walt saw a film taking shape that was initially the type of film he wanted to see. It was very dark, it was very brooding. It wasn’t the kind of film he envisaged being made from Rudyard Kipling’s stories.”

This schism between what Kipling wrote, what Peet adapted, and what Walt felt was marketable probably couldn’t have been reconciled, but the end result was that Peet left the studio, and Larry Clemmons was promoted to director and story man. Clemmons was intimidated by the assignment, and though there were challenges he rose to magnificently, the film suffers from the sense that it doesn’t know what it needs or wants to be.

Clemmons said, “Walt didn’t want to read things, he wanted to see sketches.”

Is it possible had he read a cohesive and final script, the flaws in the story may have been more apparent? At this point it’s impossible to say, but Peet’s version of their breakup, if it is to be believed (and there’s no sense that it’s skewed in his book) relates a Disney frustrated by the darkness in the treatment (present in Kipling’s original stories) and perhaps upset at Peet’s control over the last three major releases. Is it conceivable that Disney, like many canny businessmen, felt threatened by Peet’s abilities and was resentful of the writer’s confidence and facility with the complexities of the last three or four feature scripts? No one can say at this late date, but the finished Jungle Book, according to animator Eric Goldberg, “bears very little resemblance to Rudyard Kipling’s original, but I don’t think that’s what Walt wanted.”

What’s left feels more like a floor show than an actual film, with the main character, Mowgli, encountering a series of fairly entertaining characters in his aimless wanderings through a picturesque Disney-fied jungle. Mowgli is engaging enough, but the decision to give him a suburban American youngster’s accent damages the film and the character. Further, Mowgli’s voice changes noticeably throughout the film. It’s possible more than one actor was used, or that the actor employed aged between recording sessions. Either way, there’s a schizophrenic aspect to the voice performance, and the acting of the animation (which is superb) must compensate.

The film has become very popular with animators over the years, in the way some well-performed films are popular with actors. But the problem with a film that has been given to the animators to control is that performance tends to dominate, at the expense of a compelling narrative.

“Sometimes the story can be too complicated,” said Wollie Reitherman, the director of the film. “And [Jungle Book] had the simplest story you can imagine. The story didn’t get in the way of the characters.”

Well, God bless him, he was a great talent…but when someone says something like that, you know you’re in trouble. What’s left in this film, in the absence of a story, is a series of disconnected encounters with animal characters, linked by the tenuous thread of Mowgli’s desire to avoid civilization.

“Walt loved characters,” his staff repeated over and over through the years. “He said, ‘we’ve got some great characters here. Let’s see what you can do with them.’”

What he didn’t say, unfortunately, was, “Let’s see how you can use these characters to support what Kipling said in his book, and let’s see how you can make this our own without betraying what people have loved in the original.”

The film’s animation has been justly praised through the last four decades, and it is superlative by any standard. But like an actor who directs a feature, the animators here allow scenes to play out past the point where they need to, and it hurts the film. If a bit of business “played” it stayed in, whether or not the business furthered the narrative.

A prime example is the animation of the elephants--Colonel Hathi, his wife, and their corps. The acting is wonderful and the relationships are nicely shaded. But the two scenes in which the elephants appear contribute nothing to the plot, and feel like a side road. In their second appearance, the elephants hear Mowgli has run away, and they agree to search the jungle for him…then are never seen again. They do not reappear, help Mowgli, or figure in the film’s climax, so their presence seems an excuse for the quality animation that renders their performances.

The film’s chief villain, Shere Khan the tiger, is beautifully drawn and animated by Milt Kahl. But the character doesn’t appear until the film is more than half over, and when he does finally present himself, he threatens not the boy, but the character of the snake, Kaa, a deadly python whose appearance was, in the words of Frank Thomas “radically softened, because Walt knew women didn’t like snakes, and probably wouldn’t come to see a film where a snake was a main character.”

The buzzards at the end of the film come from Walt’s desire to spoof the Beatles, of all things, and Chad Stewart, the voice actor of one of the buzzards, says in the special feature documentaries, “I was semi-famous, and came from the north of England. They couldn’t get the Beatles, so they got me instead,” he laughs.

But after Walt decided not to spoof the Beatles, (feeling they might be passé by the time the film was released, the fool) he had the song rewritten for a “barbershop quartet” feel instead of a British Rock sound, and the context of the British accents disappeared. What remains feels--like many elements in the film--an odd and unfortunate afterthought.

Vance Gerry said, “Walt wanted to get in close to the characters, but the story, the plot, was secondary.”

Why? Wasn’t Walt’s legacy built on his ability to tell great stories with a handsome polish in the visuals? Why, suddenly, wasn’t the writing valued? Had so much changed since the days of Snow White? Had audiences?

“[My brother] Bob and I both felt very strongly that story was the most important thing, in any project. Not the song—and because we thought that way, we felt Walt felt that way, too,” songwriter Richard Sherman said. Richard Sherman agreed: “The idea was not to stuff the story, but to move the story along.”

This philosophy makes sense, but ironically the film’s songs do tend to slow the action down, and the most famous musical interlude, The Bare Necessities, wasn’t written by the Shermans (it was written by Terry Gilkyson). The film is perhaps most famous for the song, and it’s a highlight. It may not be on quite the same level as When You Wish Upon a Star, but by any standard it’s a rouser, and the movie is better for its inclusion. Whether or not the Kipling original supports such a wild and jazzy number is another matter. But the film is a Disney product, and in technical terms, it’s efficiently done, and sometimes inspired. 

Bill Peet gives an account of Walt in those last months, and he describes a man saddled with too many business details, too many financial problems, and a growing sense that he was getting older and more weary of the grind of feature production. Peet says, for instance, Walt felt the original (unnamed) voice of the leopard, Bagheera, was “too Brooklyn”. Peet re-recorded the session, but Walt was still displeased. After “glowering” at Peet for about a half an hour, in a production meeting, Walt suddenly suggested, “Can you animate the picture?”

It likely came as a shock to Peet, who’d been asked for years to write, not to animate. Many employees, who cited Walt’s genius for placing people in the exactly right position to shine, would have been surprised and discouraged to see their boss making such a misguided suggestion. But when Peet said, “Why not? I did a test when we were working on Pinocchio that turned out pretty good,” Walt snapped sarcastically, “What was it, the bouncing ball?”

In Peet’s account, this isn’t the cruelty of a martinet, it’s the frazzled over-reaction of someone obviously plagued with a daily roster of unfixable crises. When Disney left the disastrous meeting, he turned to Peet’s crew and barked, “If you want to see some real entertainment, then go see Mary Poppins.” It was, Peet said, the last time he saw Walt Disney, who died some months later, after Peet had left the studio.

To infer that Jungle Book isn’t “real entertainment” is unfair, for it’s a funny and often attractive film. But when we think of what it might have been--the majesty, the mythology, and the scope of the original Kipling tales--it’s sad. Perhaps, having done such a story of the natural world in Bambi, Walt and his staff didn’t want to revisit that territory. Bambi is a lovely and stately film, but in its day, it, too was dismissed as middle-of-the-road kitsch. Manny Farber’s famously scathing review of Bambi must have hurt Disney, and it’s possible he felt Jungle Book should beat critics to the punch, being amiably silly by design.

That design, and the planning that went into the film, may not stand up to close scrutiny. There is a sequence in the DVD special features, for instance, in which we learn  a famous “lost” character, Rocky the Rhino, was storyboarded, discussed, animated, revised, and refined before being dropped after a year of hard work. When the animators and historians tell this story, they use it as an example of Walt the supreme storyteller, who had the guts and integrity to cut something late into the game when he found it didn’t serve the film. But this praise seems odd for several reasons: first, because there is already so much padding and unnecessary business in the film to begin with. In retrospect, we might ask whether or not it would have been more gutsy, visionary, and businesslike to have written a tighter script--which would have rendered such a character redundant before a year of work was spent trying to shoehorn it into an already crowded series of vignettes.

Naturally, such conflicts and last minute changes happen in nearly all feature films, so it’s not charitable to second-guess these decisions forty years later. But the development--then dropping--of Rocky the Rhino are an indication that for all his genius, Walt was somehow disconnected from the matter at hand, and not in command of the structure the film desperately needed. We can appreciate the courage it took to drop a character and a whole sequence after so much had been done to refine it, but at the same time we can ask why such a sequence got so far along, if it clearly wasn’t working. And there’s the legitimate observation that there are reasons some things are dropped from final versions. Not every “lost” character is a treasure waiting to be rediscovered. It’s possible, even probable, that Rocky belonged on the cutting room floor, or in the obscurity of a dusty file drawer.

When people mention The Jungle Book, they always speak of the word “personality” and the movie has that to spare. This personality hangs on the unlikely presence of comedian and musician Phil Harris as the bear, Baloo. The film belongs to Harris, whose powerful delivery of his lines gives the movie weight, humor, and humor. That he occasionally overpowers the movie is forgivable, because for better or worse those who cherish Jungle Book cherish it for Harris’ presence.

Who am I to tell anyone they don’t have the right to love the film, or to have the privilege of a personal experience with it? When I first considered writing about Jungle Book, I asked myself if it was good Karma to analyze and perhaps gently criticize a film so many people admire. But when I saw what had been written—all of it complimentary to a fault—I felt there was room for another perspective. When we start calling something “a classic” or “a jewel in the crown of animation” we ought to mean it. As animation, The Jungle Book is nearly the pinnacle of the art form, and it will continue to be for the people who study and appreciate it. If only it had operated on this brilliant level all the way around, it might have inspired something more than admiration in audiences.

People have a tendency to speak fondly of The Jungle Book because it is the last film Walt personally supervised. This gives the movie the appealing lure of nostalgia, for those who follow the workings of the Disney studios. It’s unquestionably an entertaining and handsome film, but it’s likely its reputation has been somehow enhanced by this nostalgia. It’s also possible the definitive movie version of Kipling’s book is still ahead of us.

אנימציה כיום, אפריל 2008