The Jungle Book was the last Disney animated film in which Walt Disney had any direct involvement. It’s probably not a coincidence that it also marked the end of the first real “Golden Age” of classical animated features from the House of the Mouse.
While the studio would continue to produce other cell-animated movies over the next twenty years, no one was ever going to confuse The Aristocats and The Rescuers for Pinocchio. It wouldn’t be until The Little Mermaid in 1989 that Disney would really reclaim its animated mojo.
Like a lot of other Disney animation, The Jungle Book beefs up a slight story with comedic set pieces and bouncy, hummable musical numbers. Mowgli, a “man-cub” raised by a family of wolves, must be returned to his own kind before he is discovered by the tiger Shere Khan (voiced with silky menace by George Sanders), who hates man because it is the only thing he fears. Bagheera (voiced by Sebastian Cabot), a friendly panther, volunteers to take Mowgli to the nearest village. The only problem is that the boy enjoys his carefree life in the jungle doesn’t want to go back. He finds a sympathetic ear in Baloo, a laid-back bear (voiced by Phil Harris) with what is probably an overinflated sense of his ability to protect Mowgli from the Tiger.
The film also has a nice theme about leaving behind childish ways and accepting responsibility but it never beats you over the head with it.
This is Disney for the jazz age. The dialog is absolutely jammed with sixties hipster lingo. Fortunately, the period-specific details just enhance the nostalgia value and don’t detract from the comedic value. It doesn’t hurt that “The Bear Necessities” remains one of the single most memorable songs to come out of any Disney feature.
This movie also exemplifies a phenomenon that has apparently always made Harlan Ellison’s blood boil. The film is billed as “Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book.” You have to read the fine print to find Rudyard Kipling’s name. Of course, the author of the original Mowgli stories would probably have a hard time recognizing his work in what was on screen. The folks in Burbank have a lot more to do with the content than the original author. Still, when Disney is fighting tooth and nail to keep the copyright from expiring on Steamboat Willie, you’d think they’d look back on a movie like this or many of their early animated classics, and realize the importance of the public domain.
Of course, that’s just my opinion.