The film itself holds up well as a mild and somewhat oddly-structured, low-intensity adventure. Truly indelible voice casting helps make this one of Disney’s most memorable casts of characters. Young Bruce Reitherman had already voiced Christopher Robin in Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966) when he won hearts as Mowgli. Orphaned and surrounded by a variety of wild animals, Mowgli wanders around an exotic, alternate-universe variation on the Hundred Acre Wood. There’s a bit of everything, from the pack of wolves that raise him, to the herd of elephants he attempts to infiltrate. There’s even an uncomfortably seductive python, Kaa, who happens to have the voice of Winnie the Pooh (Sterling Holloway).
His best friends are Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther. The former was voiced by the multi-talented Phil Harris who would go on to lend his pipes to characters in Disney’s Robin Hood and The Aristocats. His irresistible charm lends a sense of authenticity to Baloo and Mowgli’s tight relationship. Bagheera was handled by the distinguished British actor Sebastian Cabot (who would narrate the 1977 The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh). Cabot’s grave intonation anchors Bagheera as the moral center of the film, the one determined to see that Mowgli resume life among other humans. Along the way, we encounter the orangutan King Louie (voiced by singer-trumpeter Louis Prima), a quartet of Liverpudlian vultures (a nod to The Beatles), and the villainous tiger Shere Khan (menacingly voiced by George Sanders).
Some 47 years after its highly successful initial release, kids weaned on the hyperkinetic flash of many modern animated features may find The Jungle Book disconcertingly uneventful. It works best when appreciated as a collection of subtle, character-based moments. A potent vein of sly wit runs throughout, keeping it funny and endearing without ever raising its heart-rate above the level attained during a light cardio workout. In fact, its post-climactic resolution—involving Mowgli instinctively succumbing to the onslaught of hormonal urges—could even be described as an abrupt non-starter. But the film’s many charms are difficult to resist, not the least of which being the lively songs by Disney vets Richard and Robert Sherman (though the best-known, and Oscar-nominated, song “Bare Necessities” was penned by Terry Gilkyson).
The distinctively muted, earthy animation of The Jungle Book has been restored for this Diamond Edition Blu-ray and the results look great. There’s usually a considerably wide range of opinions expressed by Disney buffs when it comes to these reissues. Maybe that will prove true here too, but for my money this is a handsome presentation. There’s not a great deal of grain present, so perhaps some viewers will feel the image has been overly scrubbed. Colors are solid, detail in the edgy xerographic animation is incredibly strong, and overall there’s nothing uncomplimentary I can say about this gorgeous presentation.
The DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix is a bit overkill, to be quite frank. The original mono mix is here too, a nice touch in that it allows viewers to hear it the way it was original exhibited (though it would’ve been nicer if it was DTS-HD instead of lossy Dolby Digital). The new lossless surround mix is perfect in terms of clarity and presence. But honestly, a 5.1 mix would’ve sufficed considering the relative lack of directionality. The music sounds pleasingly full, occasional low-frequency sound effects pack a resonant punch, and overall the sound is every bit as clean as we’ve come to expect from Disney’s Diamond Editions.
Of the several all-new special features produced for this edition, the most interesting by far is the alternate ending. Recently unearthed in written form only, new storyboards were drawn and paired with narration to convey an entirely re-imagined climax for the film. It’s wildly different and somewhat problematic in terms of Mowgli’s actions, but would’ve offered a far more action-oriented finale. There’s also the ten-minute “Music, Memories, & Mowgli,” which features new interviews with songwriter Richard Sherman, Diane Disney Miller, and animator Floyd Norman.
Two brand new pieces aren’t even about The Jungle Book: “I Wanna Be Like You,” an 18-minute look at a Disney theme park in Florida and “@DisneyAnimation: Sparking Creativity.” A slew of extras carried over from the standard DVD includes a terrifically informative commentary, a 45-minute “making of,” and a number of other pieces. The combo pack includes a standard DVD and digital copy.
Not only is there no princess, there’s not really even any significant female character in The Jungle Book. It’s not a fairy tale and the “hero” doesn’t really do anything particularly impressive. But these are also things that set it apart and make it memorable. It’s hard to say how its target demographic will react to it in 2014, considering how much narrative approach has changed in modern animated films. But patient viewers (as well those nostalgic for a bygone era) will continue to find The Jungle Book highly rewarding.
Images: Buena Vista Home Entertainment