Friday, February 28, 2003

The Jungle Book / **1/2 (1967)

Of all the ideas and arguments that Rudyard Kipling conveyed in his ambitious literature, the one thing that he was never able to answer clearly was why Mowgli the man cub wanted to stay in the jungle. The very idea that a simple boy can flourish on the notion of living life among ferocious lions, tigers and bears (oh, my!), even after being raised by wolves, is not exactly the most plausible explanation for any young adventurer, after all; in fact, countless stories about naive little boys or girls at least give the heroes some basic sense of knowledge or instinct, even if it's slightly misguided. Kipling's motivation behind the Mowgli persona in his "The Jungle Book" doesn't necessarily have that forethought; his protagonist is a basic archetype for absent essentials, a rowdy, foolish and inept tyke who refuses to realize his own limits of strength and wisdom, even when he is staring directly into the eyes of a tiger who is born to destroy him.

Explanations like these, at least, become irrelevant with animated adaptations because cartoonists find solutions to big issues. In the Disney version of the Kipling classic, for instance, questioning Mowgli's motivation behind his urge to live in the wild is not applicable because the jungle itself becomes a platform for jolly adventure. The animals are no longer ferocious and violent predators, but rather witty, intellectual and charming beasts whose zest for life and all its pleasures appeal greatly to the young human, sometimes often enough to actually inspire him into something productive or resourceful. He's still a dimwitted little boy in any case, with little to no dimension sustaining him among other members of the cast,but at least here we're willing to buy into his awkward reasoning, if only to benefit the plot's movement.

"The Jungle Book" was the last animated feature under the Disney name to be completed while Walt Disney himself was still alive, although the days of true greatness had long passed behind the visionary's horizon. When the 1960s brought the Xerox animation process into the medium, allowing animators to cut corners by repeating certain actions and layouts without hand-drawing everything from scratch, the artistic merit of cartooning seemed to dwindle. It was no more apparent than in the first two features produced utilizing this technique—the charming but jaw-droppingly silly "101 Dalmatians" and the awkward King Arthur retelling "The Sword in the Stone"—and as time carried on, the process became only more labored and transparent until feature cartoons were almost insufferable to look at. This particular feature represents the third outing under that technical procedure, and yet when compared and contrasted to the other major efforts of that Xerox era—especially "The Aristocats"—it is actually the most pleasing to the eye. What a shame that's where most of the praise ends.

Seeing the film again on DVD recently in anticipation of its theatrical sequel, "The Jungle Book" is an extremely uneven episode in the Disney legacy, a film without much shape and substance beyond the concept of jumping from one scene to the next in order to get to the next musical number. It's disheartening enough that the movie's central protagonist is such an unlikable half-wit, but the supporting players, ranging from a panther to a bunch of vultures, barely have any presence or weight in the plot, either. Rather than maintaining the obligatory sidekicks or villains for a good duration of the material, the movie simply introduces them staggeringly throughout the story, uses them briefly to propel Mowgli into a new direction, and are then abandoned without anything further being said. This isn't just unfair to those of us who like certain characters, but mean and disorienting as well.

The story begins with a brief voice-over; Bagheera the panther, arguably the only being in the jungle with half a mind, recalls the strange events that reshaped the very nature of his environment, in which an infant boy, abandoned on the shores of a river, was discovered by the cat and then given to a family of wolves for safekeeping. Mowgli, as the boy would come to be known as, grew rapidly as Bagheera watched his evolution from a distance, although the panther knew well that his happiness with his new family would never last. Almost instinctively, news hits the jungle that its largest predator—the tiger Shere Khan—has returned to eliminate man from the system, fearing that Mowgli will grow into a wild hunter that so often happens with humans in wild areas. But Bagheera's veiled instincts as a parental figure encourage him to transport the boy to a man village, where he would be reunited with his own kind and be safe from Khan's fearsome paws.

Needless to say, there are obstacles. Mowgli isn't exactly the most willing kid when he finds out what's in store for him. Neither, for that matter, are a few of the jungle residents, such as Kaa, a snake who would like to save the boy's flesh for himself, and Baloo, a lazy overgrown bear who sort of adopts the man cub as his own little spawn. The fact that the boy doesn't really like Bagheera that much also plays into affect, and when the panther convinces Baloo to save Mowgli from the tiger and transport him to the man village, the kid gets furious and runs away, inevitably into the tiger's path.

For most of its 78-minute running time, "The Jungle Book" is not concerned in the least with how the plot, its characters or their personal situations play out; the entire thrust is all about getting us out of one scene and into the next, throwing away most of the older supporting characters and introducing newer ones in the process. The movie is like a road picture on speed. Mowgli and Baloo, in fact, emerge as the only constant players during the swift movement, and neither are particularly likable. A series of vultures who talk like members of a 60s surfer movie are memorable, as is King Louie, an ape who has Mowgli kidnapped early on so he can learn the secrets of man's red fire, but both exist for merely one sequence a piece before they're unfairly thrown away. This may be a film that wants to expand the child's perspective of jungle life, but it could have done so without being nearly as hasty.

On the positive side: the movie is funny, colorful, and does manage to draw some very catchy tunes out of its jazzy soundtrack (most notably "I Wanna Be Like You," a song-and-dance routine that has the ape colony turning ancient jungle ruins into a wild party house). I also liked specific moments of dialogue, particularly during Shere Khan's sly confrontation with the ignorant man cub ("I will close my eyes and count to ten—it makes the game more exciting. For me, at least.") But is this really a respectable enough effort to be under the original Disney thumbs? Hardly. In an era when even mixed bags like "101 Dalmatians" and "The Sword in the Stone" had plausible payoffs, here is a questionable endeavor that leaves us scratching our heads more often than the apes scratch theirs.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Cast & Crew info:
Phil Harris: Baloo the Bear
Sebastian Cabot: Bagheera the Panther
Louis Prima: King Louie of the Apes
George Sanders: Shere Khan the Tiger
Sterling Holloway: Kaa the Snake
J. Pat O'Malley: Colonel Hathi the Elephant
Bruce Reitherman: Mowgli the Man Cub

Produced by Walt Disney; Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman; Screenwritten by Larry Clemmons, Ralph Wright, Kim Anderson and Vance Gerry; based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling

Children's/Animated (US); Not Rated ; Running Time - 78 Minutes

No comments: