Saturday, 10 November 2007

BEAR ESSENTIALS

It's all but forty years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday!

The date: December 1967; the place: the Odeon cinema, Bromley; the event: the release of a new Disney animated film --- in fact, the last ever Disney animated film to be personally produced by the man whose name was above the title: Walt Disney.

That film was The Jungle Book and it came as a gift to the kid who was besotted with animation and who, when Walt Disney had died the previous December, had truly feared that the magic was finally over and that - like the founder of the Mouse Factory - cartoon movies were now dead and buried.

I remember the weeks of expectation leading up to the outing with my parents; the excitement of queuing in the winter dark and of going into the bright, warm cinema foyer and discovering that there was a souvenir programme - what joy! - filled with stills from the movie and (the first time I had been aware of the studio drawing attention to this aspect) pictures of the actors who provided the character voices.


I'd heard of several members of the vocal cast: George Sanders who provided the suavely sneering tones of Shere Khan the tiger and who I'd seen in All About Eve and The Picture of Dorian Grey and Sebastian Cabot, the authoritative voice of Bagheera the Panther, who I knew as the stocky, bearded Dr Carl Hyatt in the TV crime series, Checkmate...


There were also two semi-regular Disney 'voices': J Pat O'Malley (Colonel Hathi the Elephant) who had created characters in Alice in Wonderland and 101 Dalmatians and Sterling Holloway (Kaa the Python) whose unmistakable vocal tones were already familiar to me as Mr Stork in Dumbo, the Cheshire Cat in Alice and as the Disney incarnation of Winnie-the-Pooh.


Later I would remember the names of the two other leading players when I discovered that Phil Harris (Baloo the Bear) had once been band-leader and comic foil to Jack Benny on the comic's legendary radio show and that Louis Prima (King Louie of the Apes) was an exciting jazz musician who had been a swinger long before he answered the call of the jungle.


What fascinated me was the fact that the Disney artists had managed to capture something of the physical likeness of these 'voices' in the on-screen creatures - as caricaturist, Peter Emslie demonstrated in the pages of Persistence of Vision...

Click on images to enlarge

None of these names will mean anything to the younger viewers of today, but it is a testament to the vocal skill of those actors and singers that the characters they brought to life are so rounded that they make a powerful and memorable impact without any need to know or relate to the off-screen identity of those celebrities.

The souvenir booklet also included a tribute to Walt Disney and a hint that those who had worked with him for so many years now intended to carry on the studio's commitment to more animated films!

Then the lights went down...

Of course, having read Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Books (right), I knew that the story that began to unfold on the screen was a far cry from the original, but since it was quite so far from the style and tone of Kipling's originals, it seemed possible to accept it on its own happy-go-lucky terms.

I have seen the film many times since that evening, but I can still re-run the movie as I saw it that night: the evocative opening with the lavish, leather-bound book springing to life as a beautiful sprawling jungle of tangled foliage, thundering waterfalls and crumbling Hindu temples; the economic prologue, introducing of the baby Mowgli, Bagheera and the Wolf Pack and - within minutes - the arrival at the film's plot device that, several years on, the panther has to take the 'man-cub' back to his own kind to avoid his being hunted by Shere Khan.

The rest of the film is that journey: at first supervised by Bagheera (encountering Kaa and the elephants on their 'pachyderm parade') then - following the unforgettable meeting with the wise-cracking, laid-back, lose-limbed Baloo ('The Bare Necessities') - there's the funny-scary, shambolic chase involving King Louie (the all-singing, all-swinging orangutan and his crazy monkeys), a quartet of vultures (three of which have Liverpudlian accents!) and the final, climactic battle with Shere Khan; after which Mowgli is safely delivered to the man-village and - thanks to the seductive allurings of a doe-eyed girl - condemned to what is clearly going to be a life of boringly civilised tedium!


The brilliance of the Disney writers and artists is seen in the tightness of this simple scenario. Like Disney's first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the main thread of the story - everything, in fact, following the opening prologue - takes place within a time span of two days, yet we totally believe in the intensity of the relationship between Baloo and Mowgli as if it were the product of not hours, but years.


Artistically, the film may have lacked the luxurious picture-book richness of, say, Pinocchio or the sixties stylization of 101 Dalmatians, but the focus on character and the free-wheeling, bright-and-breezy approach to storytelling carried it through - and still does, even after repeated viewings.

That and the jazzy score, with such numbers as the Sherman Brothers' 'I Wanna Be Like You', which in 1967 felt a pretty 'hip', if rather surprising, accompaniment to what little was left of Kipling's India.

Now, forty years on, comes a new DVD release of the film. Whilst this Platinum Edition has been digitally polished to give it a fresh luminosity, it has also regrettably been re-sized from its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio to 1.75:1 widescreen aspect ratio, resulting in a barbaric cropping of the top and bottom of the screen image.

In this day and age, it really should be possible to provide the DVD viewer with option of watching the film either in the contemporary - and more marketable - widescreen format or in its original aspect ration: the format in which it was intended to be seen. One would have thought that Disney owed it to their legacy to do this and, in the view of several critics, should be ashamed for not having done so.

The extras (leaving aside the kiddie-games aimed at broadening sales beyond the otherwise niche-audience of nerdy Disney fan-boys!) throw new light on the making of The Jungle Book, provide an opportunity to meet a deleted character - Rocky the (punch-drunk) Rhino...


...provide a chance to hear some of the songs written for the film but later abandoned and an explanation of why those Beatles-sound-alike vultures are doing in Kipling's jungle and why their song 'That's What Friends Are For' is, somewhat bizarrely, performed in the style of a barber-shop quartet.

The interviewees whose views are sought on the film include veteran and contemporary animators and a clutch of Disney historians, including - blushing modesty - myself!

Unfortunately the film crew didn't capture my 'best side' (as if I had one!) and the close-ups of my mug are scarcely flattering!

Never mind, there I am - every now and again - prattling merrily away on a subject about which I still feel as passionately today as did that wide-eyed lad sitting in the darkened auditorium of Bromley Odeon, half-a-lifetime ago...


For a full review of the film and DVD release see Ian Smith's UK DVD Review.

All film images: © Walt Disney Productions

9 comments:

Good Dog said...

The Jungle Book was the first film I was taken to see - it must have been a year or so after actual the release date, when I would have been almost three years old - in a musty cinema in Exmouth.

I loved it. I guess it's what got me working in animation.

I dragged a bunch of the kids in my year at St Martin's along when it was re-released in the 1980s. We saw it at the Warner West End, before the refurbishment, before it came the multi-screened "Vue" with it's combative smells of plastic and sickly popcorn.

It's not difficult to guess what I'll be watching tomorrow...

Suzanne said...

Oh yes, I remember...I was 13. My parents were supposed to be taking us to see The Jungle Book, but the queues were so long that they gave up and I think we were treated to a milk shake instead (sob!)
Anyway, I didn't get to see the film until I was in my late twenties and I was hooked straight away. Of course I have had the video tape for my girls for several years, but I think that DVD has to be on my Christmas list this year!
I wanna be like yououou!

Andy J. Latham said...

I'd give anything to see classic Disney films like the Jungle Book at the cinema. Sadly(?) I'm too young to have had that experience.

Disney has still managed to shape my life though and it's a testament to how good the films are that I can remember the specific circumstances in which I first saw them, just like you with Jungle Book.

My first was Bambi, which I distinclty remember whatching at my Nana's house at Christmas which my whole family. I cried my eyes out!

My first Disney cinema experience wasn't until Beauty and the Beast. I don't think I had ever sat open mouthed at a movie before that day!

And then was my favourite, The Lion King. I was sooooo excited about seeing that and it's the only time I can remember when an event DID live up to my high expectations (apart from visiting Disney World).

I would even go as far as to say (and probably sound rediculous for saying it) that Disney has been a big part of what has made me who I am. I mean that in the way that a best friend or a close relative could.

As for the DVD releases of the movies, they are always being tinkered with. I would prefer them to be in their original form too, but I reconcile myself by the fact that the original format does still exist, and although I won't see it on the new DVD, I probably will see it again on some future release (if enough people demand it).

At the risk of making this comment stupendously long, I'd like to ask you if you get as excited about recent Disney releases as you used to (and by that I of course mean the 3D ones). Also, what are your thoughts about the upcoming "Princess and the Frog". I'm hoping that it will be a true return to form for the studio, but after getting my hopes up for films such as the Star Wars prequels, I don't know if my hopes are misplaced.

Sorry for the long comment Brian. I think you can tell this is a subject I'm passionate about!

Brian Sibley said...

GOOD DOG, SUZANNE & ANDY - Oh, the memories --- AND the power of film animation to evoke them! There's nothing quite like it.

ANDY - I've always approached every new Disney feature with expectation, but have been less and less excited by the final product. Films such as 'Pocahontas', 'Hunchback' and 'Mulan' all contain moments of dazzlement and beauty and fine technical animation, but invariably fail to engage my emotions or fire my imagination in the way that many of the earlier animated features did...

But whether that response is really down to the films or to the fact that the person watching them is getting older is hard to say!

Ian said...

Caught this on DVD before I left for Cyprus last weekend, having not seen it since a first cinema showing many, many years ago. It impressed as much on second viewing as it did on the first. And it managed to do it all in less than 90 minutes (more than enough time, as modern film makers need to realise!)

Didn't get past the deleted rhino extra so didn't spot you - will have to revisit the shiny disc when I get back home.

Laurie Mann said...

I kind of like Jungle Book, but was never a huge fan. Fantasia was always my favorite Disney animated feature.

My nephew, almost 3, is now a huge Jungle Book and Lion King fanatic. So I have to find out what toy he DOESN'T have from either movie, to give to him for Christmas.

Ryan Rasmussen said...

I love this movie! And so do two of my wife's yoga clients -- who've named their Chartreux cat Baloo!

I would think that with the platinum edition the aspect ratio would be correct. Must we wait for the diamond edition?!

Elliot Cowan said...

It's the first film I was taken to see to.
I loved it as a kid.
Now?
I think it's a stinker!!!!
It's full of lovely animation but what a muddle it is!

Jason Fisher said...

Thanks for the terrific post, Brian. The Jungle Book was always one of my special favorites, and I’ve been really looking forward to the new special edition DVD (haven’t gotten it yet). However:

it has also regrettably been re-sized from its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio to 1.75:1 widescreen aspect ratio, resulting in a barbaric cropping of the top and bottom of the screen image.

Appalling! I will, of course, still get the DVD, but you are absolutely right that it ought to be possible to present the film in its original aspect ratio. I always hated widescreen films being reformatted to so-called “full-screen” (what a misnomer); who would have thought the opposite would have become so common?!