[Originally posted to Blogcritics.org]
Released ten months after his death, The Jungle Book was the last feature-length animated film produced under the tutelage of Walt Disney. I suspect he was more than satisfied with the result. Finally available on Blu-ray February 11, The Jungle Book doesn’t quite rank with Disney’s greatest masterpieces, but it’s still tremendously entertaining.
Loosely based on Rudyard Kipling’s stories, The Jungle Book begins with Bagheera the panther finding a little “man-cub,” Mowgli, in the wreckage of a boating accident. He leaves the little guy with a family of wolves, who raise him as one of their own for ten years. By then, Mowgli feels at home amongst his animal friends, but trouble is brewing: the fierce tiger Shere Khan is back in the neighborhood, and the panthers decide that Bagheera must accompany his friend back to the “man-village.”
Mowgli has no interest in returning “where he belongs,” and resists at every turn, taking up with bumbling Baloo the Bear and King Louie of the apes. Bagheera tries to keep him on the path to his fellow humans, while fending off the devious python Kaa, who thinks Mowgli would make a tasty brunch.
Do I even have to tell you that Shere Khan eventually shows up, and is beaten – with the help of four decidedly Beatlesque vultures – in the nick of time? And that Mowgli finally warms to the idea of joining the man-village when he spies a lovely girl-cub gathering water?
At only 78 minutes in length, The Jungle Book’s plot is pretty thin, and the characters aren’t as well developed as those in other Disney features. Shere Khan, in particular, has it out for humans because…well, he just does, okay? The tiger was the obvious predecessor to Scar in The Lion King– Jeremy Irons undoubtedly found inspiration from George Sanders’ sinister vocal performance – but the latter is a much more fully fleshed out character.
That’s the kind of thing that separates a really, really good Disney film, like The Jungle Book, from one of the best, like The Lion King. Still, the movie looks absolutely breathtaking. The lush Indian jungle was rendered completely by hand, giving The Jungle Book a warmth rarely seen in today’s computer-aided (or fully CGI) animated features.
The musical numbers are the best thing about The Jungle Book. The Oscar-nominated “Bare Necessities” is a classic, but my favorite was “I Wanna Be Like You,” sung by the legendary Louis Prima as King Louie. The cleverly animated “Trust in Me” sequence, in which the devious Kaa lulls Mowgli into a trance, is also a standout. The python stretching and contorting himself to keep Mowgli sleepwalking brings to mind the famed Looney Tunes short “Homeless Hare,” in which a dazed Bugs Bunny navigates a skyscraper under construction.
This “Diamond Edition” release includes the Blu-ray of the movie, the DVD version, and a digital download. The Blu-ray looks sensational; in many scenes, you can even make out the strokes of the animators’ pens, but the DTS-HD High Res Audio is mixed in a way that makes the characters’ dialogue difficult to hear in some scenes. Disney didn’t skimp on the special features, though: making-of documentaries, deleted scenes, a storyboarded alternate ending, audio commentary from animators who were inspired to get into the business because of this film, subtitled “karaoke” versions of the songs, and a featurette plugging Disney’s Animal Kingdom park in Florida.
The Jungle Book may not quite make it into the top tier of Disney’s animated canon, but even a “second-tier” Disney release still makes for essential viewing.