Jab’s Disney Reviews: The Jungle Book

Vulture: “The kid’s clear, you can let go now.”
Baloo: “Are you kidding?! There’s TEETH on the other end!”


Written by: Rudyard Kipling (original), Larry Clemmons, Ralph Wright, Ken Anderson, Vance Gerry, Bill Peet

The Jungle Book was the first film released after Walt’s death, though he had a big hand in the production of the feature.

This one feels a bit funny, because it’s almost as much of a collection of shorts as some of the earlier Disney work, albeit with an overarching plotline: while trying to deliver the 10-year old Mowgli to a man-village so he can avoid the wrath of man-hating Shere Khan, Bagheera and the boy end up running up against a series of jungle-themed encounters in India. The encounter Kaa and his hypnotic stare, an Elephant march, King Louie’s search for Man’s Red Fire, and more.

The original story is a Rudyard Kipling collection of stories, but Walt told the Head Writer Larry Clemmons “The first thing I want you to do is not to read it”. It ended up being the last film Walt put personal touches on, acting out the roles and personally-crafting gags- he would die ten months before the film would debut. It’s proven to be quite popular (Baloo would noticeably influence Little John in appearance and voice actor).

Baloo is obviously the most famous character here, contrasting Bagheera’s stodgy, teacherly pride with a hipster’s carefree outlook on life. Phil Harris makes his Disney debut with the guy, and would later voice O’Malley the Alley Cat & Little John with the same ’60s-ish hippie vibe, something that was obviously lost on Young Jab.

It’s funny how the point of the movie seems to be “stay with your own kind” as opposed to “be true to who you are”, which is the usual Disney credo. The changes to the source material are notable and wide-spread: in the original book, Baloo is the wisest and most noble of Mowgli’s friends, being the oldest animal in the jungle. Bagheera is more spirited and cat-like in personality. And Kaa, notably, was MOWGLI’S FRIEND.

Mowgli is honestly kind of a pain in the ass in the film, constantly being an idiot and going off and nearly getting eaten by a Boa constrictor or something. Kids are totally useless, especially in the wild, even if they’ve been raised by Wolves (who oddly only show up in the first couple minutes and then never again, despite caring for the boy since he was a newborn).

About Mowgli’s Performer: The Bobby Driscoll of the ’60s, Bruce Reitherman got some pretty major roles at the Disney studios, landing the roles of Mowgli, then Christopher Robin. However, he avoided the mandatory drug addiction and horrible adult life, becoming a successful cameraman and producer later on.

Bagheera the Black Panther is Mowgli’s best friend at first, taking a stern caretaker role towards the boy. He’s a bit serious and boring, which is why Mowgli leans towards Baloo, but eventually everyone comes to terms. Oddly, Disney’s people reversed his & Baloo’s personalities from the original book, making Baggy the serious grump and Baloo the one who spoils him.

About the Performer: Sebastian Cabot not only played Bagheera, but actually narrated all of the “Winnie The Pooh” stories for Disney, and played Sir Ector in “The Sword in the Stone”, too. The rest of his career was mostly bit parts, though he got a lot of work.

Baloo is the most famous and well-remembered character in the movie, even getting his own bizarre spin-off in TaleSpin decades later (really- was there some kind of nostalgia for ’30s-style Cargo Plane Adventure Movies?), and a character just like him in two later movies- The Aristocats and Robin Hood. Walt must have just LOVED this guy, apparently. Baloo is a “Jungle Bum” as Bagheera calls him, and generally just lolls about, having fun, singing and eating without responsibility. However, much like Simba learns in The Lion King, Baloo learns to care about certain things, and nearly sacrifices his life to save Mowgli from Shere Khan’s claws. And of course rubs it in to Bagheera just a little bit by playing dead a little too long, just to hear the beautiful eulogy.

About the Performer: Phil Harris famously played three near-identical roles in Disney films, but was a performer in his own right, going back to the days of radio. He was an accomplished musician and bandleader, too, appearing on what would become “The Jack Benny Program”, a top-tier role for the time. Harris actually lived long enough to voice Baloo into his eighties for “TaleSpin”, and died in 1995.

Now that we’re on Phil Harris-related stuff, I can point out HOW WEIRD IT IS that the guy played the same basic character for three Disney Movies in a row. “The Jungle Book” featured Baloo, “Robin Hood” featured him simply being recolored as Little John (to save money), and “The Aristocats”, the movie between the two, used him as O’Malley the Alley Cat. The same voice, intonations and everything.

It’s so weird, because while “repeat casting” was common back in the day (the same woman playing Lady Tremaine & Maleficent, and various other performers doing bit parts and villains periodically), this was BLATANTLY the same guy doing the same act in three films in a row. And MAJOR CHARACTERS in each one! It would be like if the two movies immediately following “Frozen” featured Idina Menzel playing identical characters with the same vocal inflections and personalities, at least one of which looked identical to Queen Elsa. Which would have been awesome.

Would it surprise you to know that there are THOUSANDS of pictures out there on the internet like this one? Or that this is quite possibly the LEAST-creepy example I can find of the subject matter?

Kaa is basically in two segments of the movie (which, as I’ve noted, is comprised of separate mini-stories), trying to eat Mowgli. I was most interested in the fact that he’s voiced by WINNIE THE FREAKING POOH, and sings a song about how Mowgli should trust him, while he’s trying to eat the boy. This is in sharp contrast to the book version, who was a mentor figure much like Baloo & Bagheera- I guess Reptiles Are Abhorrent in the Wonderful World of Disney, then.

His main power is the evil Hypnosis that renders people either asleep or sleepwalking. Said hypnosis has led to a LOT of use in the “Weird Fetishes” communities, as numerous, NUMEROUS characters have been depicted with that distinctive “multicolored eyes” look as Kaa prepares to devour them. Exactly WHY hypnosis and eating people are fetishes is beyond me, but that’s the internet for you.

I just felt you would all be happier knowing that.

About the Performer: Sterling Holloway played a lot of side roles in Disney features, but later moved on to much bigger things, playing the Cheshire Cat, Kaa, and more. His biggest role is easily as Winnie The Pooh. He was a bit player in many shows before that (radio and television), but obviously these were the most enduring performances.

King Louie did not appear in the original Jungle Book stories, and was based off of the modern-day Jazz Trumpeter Louis Prima- his widow sued Disney in 1996 over using his likeness, which may have inspired the cancellation of TaleSpin and resulted in his character not speaking again until 2010, because Jim Cummings’ impression of him was so good. His whole mini-story was interesting in that it’s a bit of a throwaway plot point (just like the Elephant March), but results in the best song of the movie (I Wanna Be Like You) with some of the best comedy (Baloo dressing up in drag as an Orangutan Goddess is classic). Like Baloo & Shere Khan, he took part in TaleSpin, as a friendly bar owner (my friend once told me he couldn’t figure out as a kid why there was this hang-out where guys were always fighting). In a funny bit, King Louie appears briefly in Fables, as despite being a master of research himself, Bill Willingham apparently didn’t realize that Louie was a Disney original and not a Kipling creation.
The Live-Action Remake actually turns the character into a GIGANTOPITHECUS, explaining what an orang-looking creature is doing on the continent (where such creatures are not native)… but of course raising the question of WHAT THE HELL YEAR IS IT, given that a GIGANTOPITHECUS is an extinct creature in our time! I mean, you just created ANOTHER unexplained plot element by “fixing” the old one!

About the Performer: Louis Prima was one of the earliest musicians to embrace his ethnic heritage- back in the day, even Italians would often hide their heritage from American audiences. A jazz musician, he had a lot of hits in the ’30s. He was a big name in music for years, but died fairly young, only eleven years after “The Jungle Book” was released, after having been in a coma for three.

Shere Khan is a great, if not terribly memorable (seriously, Baloo, Louie and even Kaa are more well-remembered characters in this film), villain, only appearing in the latter third of the movie- he’s horribly arrogant, fantastically charismatic, and his above-it-all English accent is PERFECT for the role. He’s a bit too comedic in parts for me (scratching his chin and making funny faces all the time), but he acts like proud royalty like a good Lord of the Jungle- the scene where he threatens and nearly strangles Kaa for information is terrific in establishing him- he comes off as suave and like someone who’s PLAYING kind, but is actually full-bore evil to the bone.

The Khan of the original book is a lame (like… crippled, not sucky) Tiger who hunts man due to his injuries (a common trend among injured Big Cats- men REALLY suck at fighting off carnivores of this magnitude), but most versions make him a standard Bengal Tiger (slightly smaller than the Siberian). Khan was also the coolest part of TaleSpin, a show I otherwise had little time for- Tony Jay played an awesome, bad-ass Corporate Mogul who was mostly mean but had a strong sense of honor and morality, making him the best kind of Anti-Villain.

About the Performer: George Sanders was a semi-big name, appearing in TONS of stuff, though I’ve never heard of most of it. His suave, superior English accent made him perfect for villains. However, he struggled with dementia in his later years, and his slow decline and resulting suicide was famous enough that it got mentioned in shows like “The Sopranos”.

Recognizing WINNIE THE POOH as Kaa the Python is a funny moment for me as an adult. And of course Baloo is a classic cut-up with some of his stuff. His response to Bagheera’s beautiful speech about his sacrifice while he feints death is classic, and “She did that on PURPOSE!” is one of the funniest Disney moments ever. Baloo’s disgust with how Mowgli immediately starts fawning over the beautiful village girl is riddled with hilarity, too- “you stay AWAY from those- they ain’t NUTHIN’ but trouble!”. But Mowgli needs to stay AWAY from that kinda girl- anyone who learns how to manipulate men so thoroughly and like ten years old is WAAAAAYYYYYY beyond his league. DEAR GOD she’s even mastered the “batting eyelashes”- RUN MOWGLI- RUUUUUUNNNNNNN!!!!

It’s not really the best Disney movie- the scratchy animation and flat backgrounds do it no favors, and Mowgli himself is very bland as a character- more someone that stuff just HAPPENS to than anything else.

But it’s certainly far from the worst. It gets by mainly on the strength of Baloo & Bagheera, plus the menace of Shere Khan (who’s a bit too goofy with the funny expressions for my taste, though), and some of the humor. The Beatles parody from a group of Vultures is pretty funny too, for example (and was actually supposed to BE The Beatles playing them, but the band refused).

Reception & Cultural Impact:

The film was a massive, MASSIVE success, being one of the biggest features of that year- hell, it was the #2 animated film of all time until Snow White‘s re-release in 1983.

Though The Jungle Book is an extremely famous piece of literature, Disney’s version is again the most famous, even getting THREE Live-Action versions from the studio- 1994, 1998 (a more children-focused one) and 2016, which was well-shot and had some good moments, but wasn’t overly memorable. The character of Baloo proved so memorable that Disney would rip him off directly TWICE, and then do an animated series called TaleSpin about him… as a cargo plane pilot. In the ’30s.

There was the mandatory Lame 2000s DVD Sequel release, but The Jungle Book 2 is considered pretty mediocre, in spite of getting John Goodman & Tony Jay to play Baloo & Shere Khan, which are PERFECT casting choices.

And really, is there ANY Disney Movie with more memorable music? Does anyone alive not know The Bear Necessities or Wanna Be Like You?. People LOVE those songs. Just so catchy and cool.

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