Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Cast: Bruce Reitherman, Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima, George Sanders, Sterling Holloway
Plot: An abandoned boy (Reitherman) is raised by wolves in the Indian jungle, but is forced to return to the man village, when tyrannical tiger, Shere Khan (Sanders) returns to the jungle.
Few films stick in your memory quite as vividly as the Jungle Book. All of the early Disneys have some level of nostalgia attached, those great scenes that have bled through your childhood and remained there until adulthood. The introduction of Maleficent. Cinderella losing her glass slipper on the steps of the castle. The death of Bambi’s mother. However, with the Jungle Book, pretty much all of the movie remains engrained into your memory banks. If not the specific set-pieces, the very least the characters. The Jungle Book charts Mowgli, orphan boy raised by wolves, and his trek back to civilisation, prompted by the return of man-hating tiger, Shere Khan. Along the way, he meets a whole variety of creatures that are burned into the pop culture retinas, arguably to the same degree as the packed supporting character roster of Alice in Wonderland. Who doesn’t love Phil Harris’ roguish Baloo, a bear who has turned laziness into a fine art? He is Disney 101, a cuddly giant with a soft heart and a cracking sense of humour. By his side, there is my personal favourite, the wise Bagheera. Bagheera is a kind-hearted black panther, who is the centre of the entire story. It is he who saves the baby Mowgli’s life and he who volunteers to take the boy back to his village, when Shere Khan returns to the jungle. Bagheera is instantly likeable due to the fact every action the character takes is done for nothing else than the goodness of his heart. Even when he grows into the conscience character that only ever tells Mowgli precisely what he doesn’t want to hear, he remains a likeable figure. But while Baloo and Bagheera are the beacons of good in this story, a lot of people are going to veer more towards the villains, when it comes to their favourite character in the Jungle Book. Director Wolfgang Reitherman wanted to show off how dangerous the jungle is, which happily gives him free reign to squeeze in as many bad creatures into the plot as possible. It isn’t ten minutes, before Sterling Holloway’s wonderfully wicked snake, Kaa, drops into the story, hypnotic and charming in his seduction of Mowgli. Or perhaps you prefer the outright cheekiness of the orangtuan clan, especially the infamous King Louie. He is just as you remember him, a out-spoken, singing and dancing monkey with delusions of royalty and a desire to simply do whatever he wants. Perhaps he comes the closest to winning over Mowgli simply because of his charm. And finally there is the true bad guy of the piece, the intimidatingly powerful Shere Khan, a beautiful creation. Like any good tiger baddie, Shere Khan is the right balance of terrifying and beautiful. You both love and hate the character. Pop culture has done a remarkable job of preserving this wonderful Disney creations in our minds. As well as the characters, we all remember the songs. The Jungle Book is one of the first great Disney soundtracks. While every Disney movie has its fair share of stand-alone tunes worth remembering (Cruella DeVille, Some Day My Prince Will Come), the Jungle Book is bursting with the best of Disney. “I Wanna Be Like You”, “Bare Necessities”: you will know the words even when watching them this far in the future.
But while the Jungle Book is strong in your memory, rewatching it as an adult throws up some much more little quirks you might have forgotten since your original introduction to this great movie. Every character has a little beat that you joyously rediscover here. The imagery of Kaa is pretty fixed in our childhood memory, but do you remember just how good Sterling Holloway’s performance was? A strange mix of loveable and hateful, the character is world’s away from his other iconic animated character, Winnie the Pooh. Shere Khan is also a lot sassier than you likely recall, a creature at the top of the food chain and revelling in the glamour of it all. A scene where he meets Kaa in the jungle is delightful, two villains playing off against each other, in an Indian jungle which is just as dangerous for the bad guys, as it is the heroes. But perhaps the greatest thing waiting for people returning to the Jungle Book is the relationship between Baloo and Bagheera. The film quickly affirms them as polar opposites. As soon as Bagheera sees that the happy-go-lucky Baloo has made friends with Mowgli behind his back, the panther is wary. Baloo has a habit of bringing out the worst habits in people. However, seeing as Mowgli is rebelling against the father figure Bagheera has become, the panther has no choice but to use the bond Baloo has with Mowgli for his own ends. In many ways, this story isn’t about Mowgli, as much as it is the two mismatched jungle creatures finding themselves role models, and perhaps even parents, to this human boy. Are Bagheera and Baloo cinema’s first same sex parents? Homosexuality debates to one side, there is this touching subtext to the whole story about the two characters learning to bring out the best in each other, in order to care for Mowgli. Despite both of their concerns about one another, they both decide to put the boy before themselves. Even when Bagheera storms off, he is often hanging around the edges of the set-pieces, ready to jump in if Mowgli ends up needing the support. And when the film hits its touching end, when they succeed in their mission and realise that this story ends with them saying goodbye to the creature they have learned to call their son, or beloved friend, their hearts break. The Jungle Book is about parents letting go and behind the fun and antics of the story, the burning story of a panther and a bear raising a child in the dangerous Indian jungle, is one that is up there with the best of Disney.
Final Verdict: The Jungle Book is another roaring success, full of delightful loveable characters and touching story beats.