Beginning in the 1950s, the Disney animation studio began a series of adaptations of popular British literature classics, which has colloquially become known as the “English Cycle” of Disney features. 1951 brought Walt’s long-planned version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland; in 1953, the studio tackled J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan; in 1961, Dodie Smith’s novel was made into One Hundred and One Dalmatians; and in 1963, T.H. White’s first installment of the tales of King Arthur, The Once and Future King, was developed as The Sword in the Stone. All of these films (like other Disneyfied tales before them) made major changes to the plot of their respective source materials–some more successfully than others, depending upon whom you ask (I, for one, contend that Disney’s version of Alice is cleverly mindful of Carroll’s own anarchic spirit, though others have argued with me–on multiple occasions–that the film is nothing short of a travesty. To each his own).
Soon after Stone was released, production began on the studio’s next big “English” project, one that arguably would take more liberties with its source material than any of its predecessors: an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
The film tells the story of Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman, son of the film’s director), a boy who is raised by wolves in the middle of the jungle. Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot), a black panther who has taken on the role of protector for the “man-cub,” discovers that Shere Khan, a man-eating tiger (voiced with oily perfection by George Sanders), has reappeared in the jungle, and Bagheera vows to take Mowgli to the “man-village” for his own protection. After nearly escaping the clutches of a hypnotic python, Kaa (Sterling Holloway), the pair meets Baloo (the delightful Phil Harris), a carefree, music-loving bear. Despite Bagheera’s disapproval, Baloo convinces Mowgli to remain in the jungle and live without responsibility or worry.
However, when Mowgli is kidnapped by monkeys and only narrowly escapes danger, Baloo realizes that Mowgli needs to leave the jungle for his own safety. Mowgli, feeling betrayed by Baloo’s about-face, runs away and again only narrowly escapes Kaa. Bagheera tries to organize the elephants to help them search for Mowgli, with the help of head elephant Colonel Hathi (J. Pat O’Malley), while Mowgli makes friends with a quartet of mop-topped vultures. But before Baloo and Bagheera can come to his rescue, Shere Khan corners the boy, setting up a final showdown between man and beast.
The strength of Disney’s enjoyable, yet overly simplified version of The Jungle Book lies in its soundtrack, as the songs serve to bolster the sometimes banal action onscreen. The film features some of the catchiest tunes ever composed by Disney’s go-to composers, the Sherman Brothers. Among the highlights are the elephant’s marching song (“Colonel Hathi’s March”) and “I Wan’na Be Like You,” in which King Louie (fittingly played by the indelible King of Swing, Louis Prima) and his monkey brethren try to discover the secret of “Man’s red flower” (fire) from Mowgli. But the most beloved song from the film, “The Bare Necessities,” is the only one not composed by the Shermans; instead, that one was written by Terry Gilkyson, and was the only one of the several tunes he wrote for the film that was not ultimately discarded by Disney as being too “heavy.”
That “heaviness” that Disney sought to avoid was the essence of Kipling’s original story, but in typical Disney fashion, altering the tone of the source material was never all that a big concern for the studio. In their efforts to streamline Kipling’s narrative and make the material more family-friendly–at Walt’s specific request–a number of changes were made in the script. The darker elements of Kipling’s original tale were largely excised, and there were other, sometimes odd changes in the way in which the characters were depicted in order to fit the “Disneyfication” of the story.
For instance, in Kipling’s version:
- Kaa is not a villain but one of Mowgli’s best friends.
- Bagheera is less serious, and Baloo is actually more serious.
- The monkeys are more evil as opposed to fun-loving and goofy.
- Mowgli does not rebel against the idea of going to the “man-village;” in fact, he makes the decision to go himself.
- Mowgli kills Shere Khan and skins him.
Additionally, while the film ends with Mowgli’s arrival in the “man-village,” Kipling’s stories continue past that time, showing Mowgli’s interactions with the human tribe, his eventual casting-out (after being accused of black magic by a jealous rival), and his revenge upon the village for wronging him.
Interestingly, the original scripted ending of the Disney film did explore what happened to Mowgli after he settled in the man-village, and thanks to the new Diamond Edition Blu-ray release of The Jungle Book, we can see for ourselves what was originally planned for the film’s denouement. One of the most intriguing extras on the Blu-ray features the alternate ending for the film, story-boarded and presented by a Disney artist. This ending gives Mowgli a new enemy to worry about–a jealous old hunter–and sends the boy back out into the jungle for another confrontation with Shere Khan.
In addition to the alternate ending, the Diamond Edition has many more special features to offer, including a tour of Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Orlando; a “Bear-e-Oke” singalong [note: when you pause the DVD, it automatically kicks you into this feature. I highly recommend turning this off on the main menu before watching the film]; a short feature on Disney’s innovative “Spark” program for animators; a short interview with composer Richard M. Sherman, groundbreaking Disney artist Floyd Norman, and the recently-passed Diane Disney Miller (to whom the new release is dedicated); and optional introductions by Sherman and Miller. The extras from the last DVD release of The Jungle Book are also featured here; these include audio commentaries from Richard Sherman and others, as well as scenes starring a deleted character from the film, Rocky the Rhino. [Note that most of these special features are only included with the Diamond Edition Blu-ray, and not the included DVD version.]
While the extras are plentiful, the real attraction here is, of course, the film itself, which is displayed in all its wild, colorful glory through the beauty of high definition. As expected, it looks fantastic, and it sounds even better. It’s safe to say that even if you already snagged The Jungle Book the last time Disney released it from “the vault,” it is well worth upgrading your DVD now.
The Jungle Book marks the definitive end of an era for Disney animation. Though the so-called “English Cycle” would continue into the 1970s with the release of Robin Hood (which borrows the character design of Baloo for its portrayal of Little John, as well as Kaa’s design for Sir Hiss) in 1973, it would do so without the involvement of the studio’s namesake and father figure. The Jungle Book was the final film that would be produced by Walt himself; he passed away from lung cancer in December 1966, almost a year before Mowgli’s adventures were released in theaters to ultimately popular acclaim.