The Jungle Book
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
Written by Larry Clemmons, Ralph Wright, Ken Anderson, and Vance Gerry
Starring Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, George Sanders, Louis Prima, Sterling Holloway
Why are so many Disney movies incapable of creating indelible lead characters? I wonder if that question is tantamount to heresy for many Disney buffs, but it’s worth asking. Don’t get me wrong: there are a number of Disney movies that work so well thanks in no small part to the lead character, from Belle in Beauty and the Beast to Tiana in The Princess and the Frog. (And, for the purposes of this argument, I’m leaving aside any Pixar movies.) But a whole host of Disney movies, ones that we consider classics, have a great, big, gaping hole at their center, counterbalanced by colorful supporting characters.
Take, for instance, Aladdin. Though we’ll talk about this 1992 animated film on the podcast at a later date, Aladdin has, at its core, a title character who’s far less interesting than even his pet monkey, Abu. When people think fondly (or at all) of Aladdin, they don’t do so because of the lead character and his struggles. They remember the character who fixes Aladdin’s struggles, the blue Genie voiced by an especially manic Robin Williams. Or perhaps they remember the film’s villains, the Sultan’s chief advisor, Jafar, and his loudmouth parrot, Iago. But Aladdin, the so-called diamond in the rough, isn’t nearly as compelling as those surrounding him.
So it goes for the 1967 animated film The Jungle Book. Most of us, if not all of us, remember “The Bare Necessities” or “I Wan’na Be Like You,” as well as the characters who belt out those notable songs, Baloo the bear and King Louie the orangutan. And sure, the name “Mowgli” doesn’t escape us, but when you actually sit down to watch The Jungle Book, it’s startling to realize that Mowgli the character is not only vacuous and obnoxious, but a cipher. The reason why some kids love The Jungle Book, whether they’re consciously aware of it or not, is that they can see themselves as Mowgli. The character is so formless, so personality-free, that you can transpose your own thoughts and hopes into him and imagine yourself swinging along with Baloo down the river.
When you’re young, that ability to imagine yourself in a rollicking adventure story is cool and exciting. Even now, I don’t mean to diminish this film’s power to ensnare the minds of younger viewers. But when looking at the film with a critical eye—frankly, just when watching it as an adult—The Jungle Book becomes a little less impressive than it was for me as a kid. I know, or at least, I’m fairly certain that when I was a kid, I watched The Jungle Book more than any other Disney animated movie that was initially released in theaters before I was born. Oh, I’d watched Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King and, yes, Aladdin plenty of times on VHS and multiple times in theaters. But among the older films, the classics that Walt Disney was alive to see released (or, in this case, alive to see produced, as he passed away months before The Jungle Book opened in theaters), this is what I watched most of all.
Though I usually am loathe to overgeneralize when looking back at the older Disney films, I don’t doubt that The Jungle Book having a heavily male cast where many of the other films of the era had predominantly female casts helped quite a bit. But my memory of The Jungle Book had faded appreciably, partly because I hadn’t watched the whole film in quite a few years. As such, my assumption that Baloo was, while not the actual lead, in almost all of the movie was proven wrong instantly. He doesn’t appear in the film for roughly 15 minutes, and then is missing from a good chunk of the second half of the movie. Bagheera, the no-nonsense black panther attempting to shepherd Mowgli back to his “man-village,” has possibly more to do despite frequently acting like a wet blanket.
This lapse in memory is due, I’m sure, to me not remembering that The Jungle Book is nothing if not massively episodic, as we watch Mowgli go from character to character in the jungle and, hopefully but not exactly, learn from the way they live in this place. So we see Mowgli interact with Bagheera, then with Baloo, then with King Louie and the monkeys, then with the sneaky snake Kaa, then with a quartet of surprisingly helpful vultures. Finally, he faces off against the evil Shere Khan, a tiger who wants to kill Mowgli simply because he represents a human threat. Ostensibly, Mowgli is meant to grow and change as a character through these interactions, but he doesn’t, really.
Sure, Mowgli finally agrees to go to the man-village, which is what Bagheera wanted the whole time. But if anyone changes here, it’s Baloo. Baloo is the animalistic version of Mowgli, the raging id who doesn’t want to grow up. It’s he who realizes what’s best for Mowgli, and not on a primitive level. Mowgli doesn’t so much actively decide to leave behind the jungle, as he lets his hormones get the better of him. The pretty girl whose siren song lures him into the village does the trick, but it’s Baloo who feels the pain of letting go. And it’s a testament to the animation and voice work by Phil Harris that Baloo’s pain feels real. As Gabe pointed out on the show, when he unabashedly says he loves Mowgli, we believe it even though the character met Mowgli mere minutes before. Harris’ expressive, jazzy performance is the best in the film.
But the script for the film puts Harris and the rest of the cast—including Sebastian Cabot as Bagheera and Louis Prima as King Louie, among others—at a loss. They’re forced to make us invest in the characters despite being at the disadvantage of having poorly defined characters to work with. For example, we could be more sympathetic to both Mowgli and Bagheera after their first-act interaction, but the film opens with a massively wrongheaded sequence heavy on voiceover narration. Bagheera fills us in on Mowgli’s life until he’s roughly 10 years old, how he was literally raised by wolves (and yet is somehow able to speak perfect English, which is awfully convenient). We then immediately see how the wolves freak out at the very thought of Shere Khan coming into their land to kill Mowgli. Thus, the man-cub is banished out of the jungle, with Bagheera at his side.
As the start of a plot, this isn’t a problem. But being told all of this by Bagheera, despite Cabot having a perfectly charming voice for narration, is a blunder. Part of the reason why is, perhaps, picky on my part, but if there’s going to be narration in your movie, make it consistent. After the narration in the first ten minutes of this film, we never hear Bagheera’s voice over the soundtrack again unless he’s interacting with another character. It’s just lazy storytelling.
Another major blunder, I think, is one that’s perhaps more head-scratching. Why wait so long to reveal Shere Khan to the audience? He’s built up, on purpose, but by the time we meet him, all we long for is an actual, consistent villain. The character, voiced quite well by the late George Sanders, is appropriately menacing, but should be more than a specter hovering over the first half of the film. When Shere Khan first appears, when he threatens Kaa, then attacks Mowgli while he spends time with some vultures, the thought is the same: “Where have you been the whole movie? And why haven’t we seen you before?” As it goes with the other characters, the worst thing about Shere Khan is that we want more of him and are denied for no good reason.
The Jungle Book has become a classic almost in spite of itself. Unlike other Disney animated films that attempt to lure in young boys, this movie’s world is populated with enough memorable support that it’s OK for the main character to be a black hole of charisma. The music and performances are likable and fun, whereas the story in which they appear is kind of a drag. By making the movie so kid-friendly, as Walt Disney decided to do during the film’s production in the 1960s, The Jungle Book is a fairly toothless film, not nearly as visceral or striking as future animal-heavy Disney movies. But for all the criticisms I’ll levy at the movie, I can’t ignore that it features two great sequences back-to-back. I may not love this movie as a whole, but I can’t deny my affection for “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You.” For its parts, The Jungle Book deserves its legacy. Its whole just doesn’t pass the smell test.