Sunday, February 15, 2009

Welcome to the (Other) Jungle

Way too long ago, back before Disney's endeavors to give sequels to things that never asked for one nor needed one, I had a wish for a sequel from the House of Mouse.

As you can see from the picture, yes, I wanted more The Jungle Book. In fact, that is what I felt it should be titled: More Jungle Book. (Note that I did not call it something so utterly uncreative and hackneyed as The Jungle Book 2.) I did not watch Disney's first animated feature based on Rudyard Kipling's book until college. It instantly found a spot in my Top 5 favorite Disney animations. It also made me realize that I had not yet read the book. As per my penchant for source material, I journeyed into the wild lands of India. Mowgli's adventures enthralled just as much in print, naturally. I couldn't help compare it with the House of Mouse...and as to be expected, they didn't quite get it right. The most notable "offense" is the King of the Monkeys. The book stressed that the monkeys have no leader and live chaotically. A contrast to the ever imporant Law of the Jungle. And yet... King Louie brought such joy! Not only a remarkablly entertaining personality (both in animation and Louis Prima) but despite the "law" they worked him into the plot beautifully. Overall, the scene felt as if it could have been in the original.

I soon learned through reading that Disney only used the first third or so of the book. Not surprising. The entire novel would have been a much longer movie, especially when it needs to be paired with classic Disney touches. I wanted those touches, though. I wanted more. I could see it...

I then learned that in its day, The Jungle Book proved so popular that Disney released a supplentary album starring Phil Harris (Baloo). To my delight, the songs matched with the rest of the book! Now I had to have it realized as an animated feature!

And then, one day, it came. And it looked... awful. Maybe I stuck my nose up at it in haste, but from the ads and trailer, nothing endeared me to it. Besides, it didn't have the other 'new' songs in it, even though the storyline still warranted them. No, they made it painfully clear that they decided to rehash 'Bare Necessities' ad nauseum. And had "sold out" on voice talent name recognition. Bitter much? At the time I also wondered why they didn't call again on Ed Gilbert, the man who did the voice for Baloo in Tale Spin, an animated TV series deliciously derived from Disney's The Jungle Book. Turns out Mr. Gilbert passed in 1999, before the sequel. Too bad, for Mr. Gilbert widened my eyes and tickled my ears with his impression of Phil Harris. Spot on. Eeriely so. Thankfully so. I just learned this from Wikipedia:
One of his most memorable roles was as the voice of Baloo the bear in the Disney animated TV series, TaleSpin. Originally, the role was supposed to go to Phil Harris, who had voiced Baloo in the original 1967 film, The Jungle Book. However, after one recording session, it was found that he had aged to the point where he could no longer do the voice successfully (his voice cracked). To perfect his rendition of Baloo's voice, Ed listened to old recordings of Phil Harris and practiced for many hours until he had it just right.
I truly admire such dedication to art. Bravo, Ed Gilbert! And thank you.
Back to The Jungle Book 2. As you might have guessed, I chose to leave it alone. And then one day recently, while plunking about the television, I see the Toon Disney channel airing it. With a shrug, my trusty TiVo would pick it up for me.
I didn't pounce on remained on the Now Playing list for quite a while. One night...oh maybe last Thursday, while Bart entered the IntraWeb, I sat down and began to watch.
I'll admit I set into it with a mild grudge. I say mild because such a long time had passed that I had gotten over the initial disappointments. To be fair, I decided to give the film an actual chance. Yet it did not prevent me from disappointment right off the bat. Already it had steered away from the rest of Kipling's book - the parts that I really wanted to see. But I kept watching. Typical over-cutening and aggravating additions. No sign of the real book in sight. But I kept watching. And then...the JUNGLE. Once we ventured back into the jungle, felt good again. Oh, I don't mean in felt like the original. But as close as anyone is ever going to be. I should mention here that the art is spot on - the colors, the layering, the drawing style - all of that is right. And the voices? Yes, I had complained about them. And no, they're not quite right. But truthfully? They did the job well. Bravo John Goodman and Haley Joel Osment. And a special thanks to Tony Jay, whose impreccable and eerie (like Ed Gilbert) impression of George Sanders as Shere Khan also brought magic to Tale Spin.

So. There I am in the jungle of Disney's second installment. What a treat to see Baloo interacting with Colonel Hathi! What fun to see Kaa slinking into self-slaughter again. Yes, I enjoyed it very much. We all knew the characters interacted more than they did in the original movie (and book) and Disney delivered.

After a little while, I began to reinterpret their reinterpretation for the first third of the movie. In other words, I realized that perhaps the basic essence had been like the book, just Disneyified. As I recall it from the book, Mowgli is shunned and feared somewhat in the "Man Village" for his ability to talk to animals, knowing roots and leaves that soothe...along this vein. He's accused of witchcraft, to a degree. Realizing he doesn't belong there, he goes back into the jungle and sets out to kill Shere Khan once and for all to prove himself to both the jungle and the village. Disney traded his wary wizardlys for too much talk about the jungle and reckless behavior, as it corrupted the tender mind of a sickeningly cute little boy who idolizes Mowgli. When a musical parade (of course) led by Mowgli almost leads everyone into the jungle (with the music naturally about the how great the jungle rhythm is), Mowgli is "grounded." Enter Baloo (after various hijinx) into the village, exiting with Mowgli. I won't delineate all of it for you, in case you want to see it. Besides, the point is that okay, perhaps they rearranged it entirely. But the distrust of Mowgli and his desire to escape remains intact. They also comepletely turned around the Shere Khan aspect. Khan is seeking revenge on Mowgli. (Typical Disney-cleaning.) And where is King Louie during all of this? That's another thing that pleased me. Although so very sad to not see his return, the truth is the film returned to the book. Baloo explains that King Louie skipped out a long time ago. Now the ruined city is just a place of "partying." Like the original book. It balanced out.

So, as you can tell, maybe I didn't need to hate this as much as I thought. And then....
Villagers other than Mowgli held conversations with animals. Unacceptable. Yes, I realize the time constraints of the film. The fast paced action scenes had to roll onward. However, a slip up like that is not minor. Why on earth would the villagers, who had been trained to stay out of the jungle and fear it (as per the Disney film) suddenly, when confronted with their fear, articulately and intelligibly communicate in words? Um, no. Hand gestures, I could see. Ignoring one another until both realize the goal is helping Mowgli and then understanding enough to assist each other? Even better. But talking to them? No. Only Mowgli knows the languages of the jungle. Did it kill the movie for me? No. On the whole, I enjoyed it. But it vexed me, sure.

Lots to enjoy in it, despite it foibles and shameless overuse of 'Bare Necessities' without so much as new lyrics.

Maybe I should watch some Tale Spin now.

*The picture is from the ViewMaster version.

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