THE JUNGLE BOOK: Of An Orphaned Human, Concerned Animals, and the Bare Necessities

The Jungle Book (1967) – The 19th Walt Disney Animated Feature – Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman – Starring Bruce Reitherman, Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima, George Sanders, Sterling Holloway, and Clint Howard.

Of all the Disney films I watched as a kid – and we must have seen darn near all of them – THE JUNGLE BOOK that was always my favorite. Full of great songs, great animation, and great characters, there were few scenes that didn’t make an impression on me.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen THE JUNGLE BOOK and I was a bit nervous giving it a spin after all this time. Heck, it’s been so long since I’ve seen JUNGLE that the last time I saw Baloo, Louie, and Shere Khan was on the excellent Disney afternoon cartoon TaleSpin.

I needn’t have worried. THE JUNGLE BOOK is a phenomenally good movie, and one of the very best in the Disney catalog. It’s still got great songs, great animation, and great characters, and it was every bit as enjoyable now as it was 30 years ago when I was a kid. What struck me this time around was how complex a character Bagheera is throughout the film: he’s incredibly caring for Mowgli’s condition, but he also struggles in the caregiver role, often times acting as much the petulant child as Mowgli.

Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman) has life because of Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot), as it’s the serious-minded black panther that discovers the orphaned baby inside a basket inside a broken canoe inside the jungles of India. Believing that he is not qualified to raise the human baby, Bagheera leaves him at the cave-step of a wolf family who has recently expanded with a new litter. The mother wolf instantly takes the child in, and when the father agrees Mowgli has a chance to live and a family with which to grow.

A decade or so later, Mowgli has grown up with the wolves and all is well until the rumored return of Shere Khan, a bengal tiger and man killer. The council of wolves tells Mowgli’s father the boy can no longer stay in the jungle. Mowgli’s father is incredulous, insisting that Mowgli is his son and thus should get the protection of the pack. The wolf leader would like to help, but this is Shere Khan and Shere Khan clearly scares the alpha out of him.

For the second time, Bagheera steps in and offers a solution; he’s willing to take Mowgli to a human village several days walk from here, and this meets with approval from the wolf pack.

Now, I love this movie from start-to-finish, but there are some wobbles in the narrative. Among them is that Mowgli’s family is an almost complete non-factor. They do the business of raising him, but the film is more interested in Bagheera’s guardian angel role. It would have been nice to see more of the family but we barely feel their presence. Even when Bagheera takes Mowgli away for one of their jungle walks and finally reveals to the young boy that they’re not going back, Mowgli’s desire to return feels like it’s less about reuniting with his family and more about not having to change his status-quo.

Bagheera is insistent that they keep going even when Mowgli insists he’s not afraid of Shere Khan. They spend the night in a tree when they’re set upon by Kaa (Sterling Holloway), a python with hypnotic capabilities. Kaa puts Mowgli under and then Bagheera under, but doesn’t get to eat either of them. While Kaa’s threat is serious, he’s played more for comic relief.

The following morning, Bagheera and Mowgli’s rest is interrupted by Colonel Hathi (J. Pat O’Malley) and his herd of elephants. Mowgli tries to join the procession, befriending Hathi’s son Junior (Clint Howard), but Hathi isn’t having it. What struck me this time was that while this film is set in India, and the elephants are native to India, the elephants are clearly inspired by the British military. Noticing this, I went looking for some kind of pro-colonial sentiment, but it’s just not there. Casting Euros and Americans to voice most of the character simply seems a stylistic choice, and while you can’t completely ignore the implications of using non-native voices, it doesn’t feel wrong, either.

Post-elephants, Bagheera and Mowgli run across the real star of JUNGLE: Baloo the Bear (Phil Harris).

Baloo is one of the very best Disney characters to ever grace the silver screen. A bit lazy but also completely in love with the leisurely life, Baloo is instantly taken with Mowgli. Bagheera is beside himself at Mowgli bonding with Baloo, and even more beside himself that Baloo wants the young man cub to stay with him. Baloo sings his legendary, “Bare Necessities” song, and it, too, is one of Disney’s all-time bests. “Necessities” is a wonderful ode to finding satisfaction in the simple things in life; as great as the song sounded when I was a kid, it still sounds equally great now.

Mowgli, Bagheera, and Baloo form the real family unit in JUNGLE BOOK. Where Bagheera is like the over-concerned aunt who drops in once every few months, Baloo is like the cool uncle who’s always willing to tell you that the only thing dumber than chores is homework. Bagheera’s insistence that Mowgli be taken to the Man Village is complete brushed aside by Baloo, and thus Mowgli is drawn to the bear just as he was drawn to the elephants. Mowgli is clearly just looking for a port in the storm to keep him away from going to live with humans, and Bagheera has had it, slinking off to leave Mowgli and Baloo to the fates.

Almost instantly Mowgli is stolen away from Baloo by some monkeys, who take the boy to King Louie (Louis Prima). Louie is willing to let Mowgli stay with him, as long as Mowgli gives the King the secret of “man’s red flower,” by which he means fire. Mowgli doesn’t know how to give him that, which doesn’t make Louie thrilled. We get another excellent musical number from Louie with “I Wanna Be Like You,” and a raid by Bagheera and Baloo to rescue Mowgli.

This kidnapping experience teaches Baloo that he wouldn’t make a good parent for Mowgli, and he decides to tell the boy that Bagheera is right and he should go to the man village. Mowgli does not react well to this, and runs away. Baloo and Bagheera split up to search for the boy, but Shere Khan (George Sanders) gets there first, coming upon Mowgli when he’s singing with some vultures who are modeled on the Beatles.

Shere Khan is a wonderful bad guy. Full of intelligence and speaking with an air of sophistication, Shere Khan is also the baddest animal in the jungle, and everyone knows it. JUNGLE does an excellent job of building Shere Khan up without really using him all that much. He plays everything understated but laced with menace, which makes Baloo’s decision to insert himself in the Shere Khan vs. Mowgli fight all the more heroic. Mowgli ends up defeating Shere Khan by using fire against the tiger, and it’s a bit of a quick ending to an otherwise good fight.

Ultimately, the idea of a Bagheera, Baloo, and Mowgli family is broken up when Mowgli spots a human girl about his age getting water from a river. He’s instantly struck dumb by the sight of the girl, and leaves Baloo and Bagheera behind for a chance to follow the girl back into the village. The seeming eternal bachelor Baloo is horrified by this, but Bagheera feels this was both inevitable and right.

It’s a bit unfortunate that the film drives home the point that “everyone belongs with their own kind,” though the full impact of that idea is mitigated by presenting only two worlds: the human world and the jungle world. Shere Khan is still out there, after all, and thus Mowgli’s life is every bit in danger at the end of the film as it was back near the beginning. He probably is safer with the humans, but it’s important that this is a decision Mowgli makes absent of Shere Khan’s influence. He sees a girl, he falls instantly in love, he decides to follow her and ditch his friends.

Been there. Done that.

THE JUNGLE BOOK is a fantastic movie. While there are some narrative burps along the way, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film from the opening frame to the last and one of Disney’s absolute bests.

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