The Bear Necessities: The Jungle Book

            During the many summers of my childhood spent in Pryor, Oklahoma, I regularly tried to watch The Jungle Book. Staying with my aunt meant lots of movie watching; as an elementary school teacher, she owned lots of great movies. I would pop one in on rainy days or while I was waiting for her to wake up (as an adult, she didn’t enjoy getting up super early in the morning like I did until I was ten. Now I’d much rather sleep). I slid the VHS cover open and put the tape in the VCR countless times, watched the first ten minutes, then wandered off to play with toys or do something more interesting than watch that movie.
Bagheera, my favorite character
    As this is the last animated film that Walt personally oversaw, I was excited to watch it. Walt, being the micromanager he was, was very attentive to detail in all of his films. Once, for a Silly Symphonies Mickey Mouse cartoon, the animators purposely left out part of Mickey Mouse’s tail for one frame of film (seconds or a fraction of a second of film). Walt watched the nearly-completed short in its entirety and then said something along the lines of “That’ll work, but make sure you fix Mickey’s tail before you’re done.” With his death in 1966 (moment of silence in remembrance…), the fate of the studio was unknown. There was a lot riding on the success of The Jungle Book, and it wasn’t just financial success that was important anymore.
            The animators put even more effort into The Jungle Book in order to show their value and hopefully keep their jobs. The process of xerography was further refined and the backgrounds further developed in order to improve the visual experience. The Sherman brothers wrote most of the songs. “The Bare Necessities” was written by the original composer and lyricist for the film who was fired early on in the process because his music and lyrics were too dark and he refused to change them; ironically, the only song from the film nominated for an Academy Award was “The Bare Necessities”.
            Bill Peet, a story artist and animator I’ve talked about a lot in the last few chapters, left the Disney studio because of this film. He convinced Walt to do the film in the first place, but Walt felt the original story pitch was too dark; he wanted the story to differ from the Rudyard Kipling book of the same name. After Peet left, Walt gave the new head of story development a copy of the book and told them the first thing he should do is not read it. Peet and Walt’s relationship was never the same after The Jungle Book, though Peet does recall Walt fondly in his memoir.
            The stop-and-go nature of the film caused me not to like it so much. I can’t not like it at all, because it’s the last animated film Walt supervised. But I can’t really like it either, because I found myself reading about the film while watching it instead of just watching it. It didn’t draw me in and captivate me like Disney films usually do. Mowgli is kind of whiney and annoying; considering he’s lived in the jungle his whole life, you’d think he would get into significantly less trouble. Tarzan lived in the jungle from infant to adulthood, and he certainly didn’t get kidnapped by monkeys or entranced by a snake. Sheesh, Mowgli.
            While we’re on the topic of snakes, I feel very…uncomfortable with the voice actor of Winnie the Pooh voicing the evil Kaa the snake. That’s just not cool, man. I kept waiting for him to say, “Oh, bother” and go look for honey. I’ve heard that voice so much (he was also the Cheshire cat in Alice and Wonderland) that I associate him the most with Winnie the Pooh. Ironically, the Winnie the Pooh films came after Jungle Book, but growing up on the Winnie the Pooh shorts makes his voice much more recognizable as Winnie the Pooh (for some reason, I can’t just say Winnie. He’s Winnie the Pooh, not just Winnie. Which is odd for me, because Pooh isn’t a word I like to say).
            Normally I really hate the villain, but I had trouble hating Shere Kahn. Before you think I’m terrible, let me explain. I love tigers. I’ve loved tigers for a very long time. I even have a tiger friend at the Indianapolis Zoo; he comes to the edge of the enclosure and we stare into each other’s eyes every time I visit (James didn’t look like he believed me at first, but then he witnessed it so he can attest for my tiger friend. Whom, I’m sure, would not eat me if given the opportunity.) I love the character of Raja in Aladdin and still want a pet tiger because of that movie. I LOVE tigers (and tigger, too!). So having a tiger as a villain just wasn’t working for me.
            On top of that, the tiger wants to kill Mowgli such that Mowgli doesn’t grow into a tiger-hunting man. Man is the real villain in the film, as man hunted the tigers and gave Shere Kahn the motive to kill Mowgli. It’s really just self-preservation. And Mowgli is a bit of an entitled whiney brat, so there’s that. (Of course I’m not wishing Mowgli had died; but he could have been less annoying).
            On the topic of Mowgli, he’s a very disappointing character. He doesn’t learn anything about his experiences. He gets into trouble with every animal he encounters, save Baloo and Bagheera. The monkeys, the elephants, the snake…the vultures are nice to him, though. Baloo nearly dies saving Mowgli, and not thirty seconds later Mowgli is distracted and follows home the first girl to make goo-goo eyes at him. He abandons his friends for a girl. He abandons his principles for a girl. I just spent over an hour watching him fight to stay in the jungle (without thanking his wolf-parents, by the way—he didn’t even try to go back to them. Just walked away and whined about having to leave the forest), then his friend saves his life so he can stay in the jungle, and what does Mowgli do? Completely forget about his friends and his complete unwillingness to leave the jungle and follow a girl to the man-village. Ugh.
            On the plus side, I love Bagheera. He’s kind of the Jiminy Cricket-redeeming-character of the film. He may say he’s wiped his hands (paws?) of Mowgli and given him over to Baloo, but when Baloo cries for help with Mowgli, Bagheera rushes in to help save the day. I’m glad he gets what he wants, at least. And I’m glad he finally makes friends with Baloo—Baloo clearly needs a friend.

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