The Jungle Book: Diamond Edition


Why Walt’s swan song is still king of the swingers

The Jungle Book was the last animated feature directly supervised by Walt Disney, and wascompleted after his death from lung cancer in December 1966. 

Not that you’d know it. 

Far from feeling like a deathbed work, this is still one of Disney’s most joyous classics.

Did Disney know this would be his swan song? 

Certainly, Walt was the driving force in eschewing a straight adaptation of Rudyard Kipling in favour of something faster, funnier, jazzier. 

The writers were ordered not to read the source stories, while Walt personally selected the twinkling tones of bandleader Phil Harris (not an obvious choice) for Baloo. Disney kept only the bare necessities of man-cub Mowgli’s adventures.

The void was filled with a distillation of his career: big-hearted, crowd- pleasing, pure cinema.

Scarcely bothering with plot, it’s a madcap, episodic revue, swinging from set-piece to set-piece like King Louie, filling the time with catchy Sherman & Sherman songs, jokes and loveable characters. 

The most interesting new extra on this edition, alongside features from the 40th AE DVD, reveals a newly discovered, surprisingly sour coda where Mowgli does battle with a malicious hunter. Disney was right to cut: it would have killed the party stone dead.

Despite Disney’s desire for something timeless, it reflects the troubled ’60s. King Louie wants to be like you-ooh-ooh – an oblique commentary on the civil-rightsmovement that might be on dubious grounds conceptually but works in context because nearly every characterwants to escape their pigeonhole. 

Baloo is dropping in and tuning out, mad-eyed Kaa the Snake is clearly onthe psychedelics and the vultures have jumped on the Beatles bandwagon. 

It isthe urbane, George Sanders-voiced villain Shere Khan who sounds out of time and out of touch.

Credit for maintaining the near-anarchic lightness of touch must go to director Wolfgang Reitherman, who sacrifices finesse for fun, keeping things simple in order to achieve the film’s restless paceand energy. 

There’s a visual contrast, more evident than ever on a gorgeous Blu-ray transfer, between the fizzing, blurred lines of the characters and painterly backdrops. 

Allied to the larger-than-life performances, the effect is to set the beasts free.

They would never be caged again. The best of Disney’s output since has leaned heavily on The Jungle Book’s infectious bonhomie. 

Without Baloo, there’d be no Robin Williams in Aladdin; without ‘The Bare Necessities’, there’d be no ‘Hakuna Matata’ in The Lion King

Right to the end, Walt Disney was still setting the course for American animation.

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