“No one explains anything to Shere Khan”
It’s without a shred of nostalgia that I declare Disney’s animated The Jungle Book an entertaining romp. Having never seen it due to its absence from my stable of “classics” growing up, my affinity to the characters hailed from “TaleSpin” instead. So it was fun meeting them in their original form—bumbling, kindly creatures looking out for the young man-cub they raised to have empathy for their myriad species while man itself sought to kill similar to villainous tiger Shere Khan (George Sanders). I enjoyed their singing and dancing with ten-year old Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman), joyously free in a jungle willing to accept him as he did them. But beyond frivolity and an effectively climactic sense of terror, this Rudyard Kipling adaptation proves quite hollow.
This is due in large part to Walt Disney himself taking a larger interest in Bill Peet‘s process than on the screenwriter’s previous films 101 Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone. Peet came up with the premise of following Mowgli as he traversed the wild en route to the man village he had never known. But his path retained the darkness of Kipling’s novel to add drama Disney felt wasn’t conducive to the family-friendly tone he hoped to conjure with the property. In came Larry Clemmons to rewrite the entire thing with Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman enlisted to craft lighter songs that ultimately would diffuse the jungle’s inherent danger while original songwriter Terry Gilkyson‘s work was scrapped besides the film’s indelible classic “The Bear Necessities”.
You can feel this change while watching because you want something of importance to happen that never does. It’s interesting because Disney movies are known for their dark streaks just like Walt was known to have embraced that tone as a child’s right. Maybe it was The Sword in the Stone‘s lack of success or perhaps his own waning health (Disney would pass away during production a year before its release), but The Jungle Book looks to be an aberration in the studio’s canon that’s interested more in sing-a-longs than worthwhile conversation. Its construction is skit-like with each new chapter starring a different animal to “teach” Mowgli about his personal anthropological caricature while the lingering threat of the man-hating tiger Shere Khan awaits off-screen.
The truth that the jungle is a dangerous place for those unwilling to believe it becomes the film’s message. Mowgli has known nothing else, though, so why is he suddenly told to leave? To save him of course—love is the motivator. This means the most interesting portion of the tale should be the ten years spent with a family of wolves who build that love. Bagheera the pragmatic, intellectual panther (Sebastian Cabot) leaves the baby at Mama Wolf’s doorstep; Papa Wolf smiles upon seeing him; and they rear him as their own alongside their other cubs. But this progression is only shown by a decade-long jump cut, the bond formed easily forgotten once the wolf pack declares it unsafe to keep him under Shere Khan’s rule.
So it’s off into the trees on Bagheera’s back. It’s off to find the city of man if they can survive the journey—a not so simple prospect when Mowgli continuously diverts from the path because he doesn’t want to leave. Kaa the Snake (Sterling Holloway) yearns to hypnotize him to sleep for supper, King Louie of the Apes (Louis Prima) seeks to kidnap him in order to learn how to make fire, and simple but loyal Baloo the Bear (Phil Harris) hopes to keep the boy as his own cub to spar with and make into a bear like him. There’s also the military contingent of elephants led by Colonel Hathi (J. Pat O’Malley), but you could literally excise them from the story and lose nothing.
In fact, you could remove everyone but Bagheera, Baloo, and Shere Khan and turn The Jungle Book into a thirty-minute short without losing story coherence. That just proves Disney wasn’t interested in anything but making kids laugh and sing in the theaters. He wasn’t searching to instill any commentary on the dynamic between man and beast beyond the simple fact that we are separated for a reason. In this respect it is a resounding success. My toe was tapping and my face was smiling almost exclusively throughout. I basked in the rougher, sketch-like aesthetic of the animation and laughed at the pratfalls Mowgli takes in stride while Bagheera forms an ulcer. Baloo’s love for the boy is real despite their short time together and Shere Khan’s hatred undeniable.
Khan is a force mostly because of Sanders’ haughty, civilized portrayal revealed as a ruse when the feral thirst for blood ignites. He’s so menacing that it’s a shame no one else possesses the same impact. Kaa was made to fail with humor and Baloo to love unconditionally with a hug. Only Bagheera equals Khan’s level of complexity. As for Mowgli: he’s a boy. He learns nothing, is oblivious to the fact his life’s been saved throughout the journey, and ultimately forgets them all at the sight of a beautiful young human girl. Yes, it’s lust that ultimately wins—ten-year old lust at that with batted eyes and slack-jawed attraction missing only a thumping heart leaving Mowgli’s chest. Thankfully the film’s fun because that’s its sole appeal.