Monday, October 8, 2007

Do I Love "The Jungle Book"? You Better Believe It!

It seems that with the 40th Anniversary 2-disc DVD release of Walt Disney's "The Jungle Book" this past week, a lot of animation related bloggers are posting up their memories and thoughts on this animated classic. Check out Disney animator, Will Finn's post here. Since "The Jungle Book" remains my alltime favourite film of any kind since its debut in 1967, I reckon I need to add my reminiscences here too.

When "The Jungle Book" premiered on the big screen way back then, I was just a seven year old kid. I'd already been cartooning since I was about four, mostly from watching the likes of Popeye and Bugs Bunny cartoons on TV, but I'd seen several older Disney features in their periodic rereleases and had definitely developed a taste for Disney animation. But now I was getting to see Disney's latest release as it was appearing onscreen for audiences for the first time! I suspect that for many of us animated cartoon fans who came along at the tail end of the Baby Boom, "The Jungle Book" was the film that really did it for us. I know I was certainly at that impressionable age where this film was like a catalyst that started me toward wanting to be a cartoonist as my life's goal. Yes, I was focused on my future career at the tender age of seven, as frivolous and risky as it may seem, and nothing or nobody was going to take me back to a more practical job in the Man Village!

I think I'll write more on how I came to work as a cartoonist (and ultimately for Disney) in a future article, but today I want to discuss something others are writing about on their blogs that is certainly for me a big part of the film's appeal, namely the voice talents that were used in "The Jungle Book"...

The pages reproduced above are from a publication called "Persistence of Vision", which was started by my friend Paul F. Anderson back about 15 years ago. In the few years it was published, there was no better, more exhaustive journal on Disney history than this one, and I hope that Paul realizes just how many people owe him a big debt of thanks for his efforts in producing such a series of wonderful issues.

Anyway, this was an article I had written and illustrated for POV, detailing the way Disney's animators would often caricature the essential physical elements and mannerisms of the personalities who gave voice to the characters. Whereas it is quite an obvious ploy to use in a human character like, say, The Mad Hatter, basing his looks on that of comedian, Ed Wynn, it takes some clever doing to translate an actor's physical characteristics into that of an animal. I don't wish to repeat myself here, so please read the article to get a better idea of what I'm talking about. Hopefully, you can see from my caricatures how the Disney artists were similarly interpreting the actors' features into animal form.

Michael Sporn has written a very good article on his take regarding Disney using celebrity voices for the characters in "The Jungle Book". I certainly don't share his opinion of the film as a whole, but I certainly understand his criticisms of the voice talents. However, I'd like to share my own thoughts on why I believe that the situation was not quite the same in that film as it is in the rampant, celebrity-driven animated features of today.

Considering that "The Jungle Book" came out in 1967, I think it's fair to suggest that practically none of the principal voice actors employed were anywhere near their height of popularity when they recorded the soundtrack to the film. Phil Harris had been a popular radio personality on both his own show with wife Alice Faye, as well as previously playing the boozy, breezy buddy on Jack Benny's radio show. By the time "The Jungle Book" came his way, he'd been reduced to the occasional guest appearance on a variety or talk show and would have been virtually unknown to kids of the time. Likewise, Louis Prima was not a household name with kids either, having had his hit recording career about 10 years earlier, and even his Vegas show, which would have been geared more towards their parents, was also in its waning years by 1967. George Sanders was many years past his physical prime as a dashing leading man onscreen as either noble hero or nefarious cad, and was currently turning up as a character actor in mostly B pictures by then. Only Sebastian Cabot would have been a familiar voice to kids of that era, as he had just found fame on TV's "Family Affair" as the portly valet, Mr. French.

(Here's a taste of the wild antics of Louis Prima that led to the equally manic King Louie!)

These days, actors are hired for voicing animated characters based mostly on their recognition with contemporary audiences. So it is you get A list actors like Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michelle Pfeiffer all doing lead roles in Dreamworks "Sinbad", and Mel Gibson and Kevin Kline turning up as heroes in recent Disney features. Unfortunately, despite their considerable acting skills and marquee value, none of these actors, at least in my opinion, brought anything much to the roles in terms of vocal "personality". In other words, for all they brought to the performance, the studios could have saved themselves a lot of money and hired virtual unknowns who could give a reading at least as good as, if not better than the big name stars. Frankly, I much prefered the warm, delightful vocal performance of Jodi Benson in "The Little Mermaid", despite the fact she was a virtual unknown outside of her work on the Broadway stage.

I'd argue that all of the vocal talents used in "The Jungle Book" were hired more for the strength of their distinctive and charismatic vocal quality far more so than for marquee recognition. As a kid back then, I related to Baloo the bear because of the warm, rumbling voice of Phil Harris. To this seven year old kid, Harris brought a vocal quality and mannerisms to the role that resulted in pure cartoon magic when coupled with the equally appealing visuals provided by animators, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. I didn't know who most of the voices belonged to at that time, but all of these characters were brought to life for me in a way that made "The Jungle Book" my favourite film back then and continues to be to this day!


Kyu-bum Lee said...

I picked up the new Jungle Book release this weekend also and marveled once again at the beautiful animation and the voice talents that gave inspiration to the animators.

For me, having to be born in the 80s, characters like Genie in Disney's Aladdin stuck out to me because of Robin William's spectacular voice performances. :)

Pete Emslie said...

Hey Q, good to see ya'!

There are going to be movies that will come along in your formative years and remain as landmarks of your youth that you look back on fondly in the years to come. For me, "The Jungle Book" was the right film at the right time that provided a very clear career goal for me that luckily came to reality many years later. I suspect that for you students that have recently arrived at Sheridan with similar career goals, you can likely trace that desire back to a certain movie or TV cartoon of your own youth. In your case, maybe it was "Aladdin". I suspect that "The Lion King" will prove to be another catalyst for many young aspiring animators.

Thanks for dropping by - see you in class!

Will Finn said...

pete--this is so well said, i can't add much other than my shared love for this movie. it's also my favorite film of any type too, perhaps tied with mel brooks' (original) 'the producers.' neither film is the pinnacle of cinema but each takes on a geshalt greater than the sum of it's parts for me. i also tend to gravitate to movies that eschew the precious and pretentious and JB is all that.

as always, beautiful images of the stars.

Kitty said...

Oh what a fabulous post - The Jungle Book is my all time favourite Disney Film (I have a YouTube of King Louie's 'I Wanna Be Like You' on my MySpace!)
I remember going to the cinema to see it with my mum and brother, when I was very young. My brother got spooked by the snake's eyes and had to be taken out. But I loved it - and still do.
Kitty :-)

Matt Jones said...

JB is one of my favourite films too so all these blog posts are heaven to me. Yours is really interesting Pete & thanks for posting that old article you wrote & illustrated.

Michael Sporn said...

I love your enthusiasm for this film and celebrate it as well. My difficulty with the celebrity voices in this film is not the voices per se, but their use by the animators. The characters they created and developed were not originals but were caricatures of the voice actors' tv personalities.
By the time The Jungle Book was made, Phil Harris had developed a tv character for himself not too unlike Dean Martin's. He acted as though he were a perpetual drinker enjoying the "good Life" with a bon vivant attitude. He was playing the tv character he had developed for himself in "The Jungle Book", and that's the way the animators used him. I'm sorry, but I couldn't get past it. Much the same for Louis Prima.

These guys (and that includes George Sanders) were perpetual guests of the tv variety shows of the early 60's, and they belonged to my parents' era, which just happened to be the era of the animators controlling this film. It felt it to me like an extension of The Dean Martin Show.

More difficult to me was that the film never seemed to go anywhere. It was just a grouping of set pieces that didn't take Kipling's beautiful and poetic story seriously.
Take a look at Alexander Korda's Jungle Book for a different Hollywood take on the film.

Pete Emslie said...

Will - It's interesting that you would mention "The Producers", as that may well be my favourite live-action comedy too. (We really did grow up in the same era, didn't we!) I guess my feeling on "The Jungle Book" is that it is exactly what it set out to be. To make an analogy, whereas "Pinocchio" may be considered by many to be the "Citizen Kane" of Disney animation, "The Jungle Book" may very well be akin to "The Producers". Not every film should strive to be a cinematic masterpiece. Sometimes a genial comedy can be equally as satisfying in its own way.

Michael - I certainly get what you're saying and I agree there is always the danger in using a pre-established persona as a creative crutch when casting celebs as character voices. However, it was ever thus to some degree. Even the voices of The Seven Dwarfs were comprised of several popular radio personalities of the time. Is Sneezy any less satisfying a character because he's based on Billy Gilbert's comic sneezing shtick? For me, the sheer aural appeal of the voices used in "The Jungle Book" resulting in rich onscreen personalities is all that matters in the long run.

By the way, I coincidentally watched Korda's film just last week on TCM after having not seen it in many years. Yes, it's a visually lush and hauntingly beautiful production that is certainly much truer to Kipling. But Walt Disney may have deliberately gone in the direction he did to avoid comparisons to that film. Looking at the early storyboards by Bill Peet on the DVD set, you can see that much of it would have been highly reminiscent of the Korda film, particularly with the subplot of the village hunter using Mowgli to lead him to the temple ruins and the room of treasure. I'm sure that Walt could have done the story justice had they taken a more sincere approach in adapting Kipling's novel, but I'm also betting that Walt was worried about the obvious comparisons that critics would have made, so he went down an entirely different path creating his own "Disney Version".

Will Finn said...

BTW, i don't begrudge haters their dissent on JUNGLE BOOK--while tremendously popular, it was never a 'sacred cow' to begin with and always had its critcs. that some are calling it over-rated strikes me odd. i also find it odd that current critics tend to parrot old arguments that it is A.)plotless and B.)heralded the decline of disney. these people have evidently never seen SWORD IN THE STONE, a picture which i would say deserves those bricks much more deservedly (despite my fondness for segments of it). to me JUNGLE BOOK marks a step in the right direction away from that, although i can see where people find the narrative uneven.

i also agree with the point you made about walt evidently deliberately seeking to avoid comparison with the alexander(excuse me while i yawn)korda version. thank god.

as for the celebrity voice issue i can only say that it seemed both appropriate and novel at the time and it seems unfair to blame that film for 'crutch' factor that bedevilled so many films that followed (up to present day).

Kevin W. Martinez said...

Hey, Pete.

I only discovered your blog a day ago, and I can already say you're blog is going to be one of my favorites.

I loved the Jungle Book growing up (although I didn't have quite the connection to it that others who have commented on it had), and took some time a couple of weeks ago to rewatch the whole thing, in antiicpation of the DVD release.

Although Spron is porbably justified in calling it an "extension of the Dean Martin Show", It's never really felt that way to me, since the voices and characters completent one another so well, because of those connections. It's not a hindrance to me.

The Plot admittedly is pretty thin (although it's still somehwat coherent, as opposed to Chicken Little's inserting an inconsequential baseball game in the middle of its "save the world from alien destruction" plot), but the film works fine as it is, thin plot and all.

I greatly appreciate your passion for the subject, Pete, and I especially loved your illustrations for the magazine article. It's going to make rewtaching the film again on DVD even sweeter.

Till Later, This is Kevin Martinez.


Hi Pete and all!

My two cents worth....

Like Pete, I'm a baby boomer. I was in elementary school in the 60s. So for me, "The Jungle Book" was also a landmark of my youthful movie-going experience.

I've been privileged to hear composer Richard Sherman talk about the evolution of the Disney version of "The Jungle Book" on several occasions. The original approach was a much darker story. And Walt was not pleased. He said "we're going to make this a Disney story." And he did. He threw away all the Terry Gilkyson songs except "The Bare Necessities" and had the Sherman Brothers write new songs that advanced the revised, brighter story line.

There is no question "The Jungle Book" is a different kind of movie than "Snow White." While "Snow White" was an artistic triumph, "The Jungle Book" was hardly a throwaway. The background art was among Disney's most lavish:

While the over-use of recognizable voice talent is now an exhausted resource, good casting is good casting, period. And "The Jungle Book" ensemble hit the mark.

The animation was an extraordinary example of "making it look easy." There are so many wonderful moments. Kaa's hypnotic eyes... Shere Khan's arrogant, powerful yet underplayed dialogues. Perhaps my favorite scene is (near the end)when Mowgli realizes Baloo is still alive. Watch the way Mowgli's face lights up, and the sheer joy as he jumps into Baloo's arms for a hug with his "big ol' Papa bear."

Is "The Jungle Book" Disney's greatest film? No. But it is wonderful in its own way. The heart of the film is the central theme of a child's search for belonging, and identity. "The Jungle Book" follows this path with charm, humor, wonderful songs and colorful characters.

"The Jungle Book" is a masterpiece on its own terms.

Rhett Wickham said...

Pete, Will, et al -
As one of the cranky curmudgeons who has been littering the blogs with criticism of Jungle Book, I want to say that I don't intend to distract from anyone's enthusiasm for the film. I can't imagine a Disney world (or a DisneyWorld for that matter) without it. The film meant a great deal to me as a boy, as it was just shortly before this that I had the fortune to strike up a letter exchange with Walt (and later with a couple of the animators, that lasted well into my twenties) so there was some very real sentimental affection for the movie that still clings to this day.
I don't want to rain on the parade, and so I won't. Instead I'll add praise for the things about the film that sing loudest to me. Those layouts. WOW, those layouts! If I could live out my Mission Impossible fantasy of plundering the Disney ARL, the temple layouts and blue-sketch pieces are waaaay high-up on the list.
Shere Khan and King Louie and Kaa are among my favorite performances. In fact, the entire Louie sequence is one of my favorites in any of Walt's films.
As a weary champion of many oft-maligned animated features, I lovingly cheer on anyone equally as passionate about The Jungle Book.

Thad said...

I always thought Phil Harris was a great choice for Baloo, and it wasn't at all contrived like it is in the other Disney features.

The "I Wanna Be Like You" is wonderfully animated - does anyone know who did it?

I know Benny Washam was in awe of the animation in this film when it came out, claiming "We could never do that kind of that animation at Warners."(?!?!!)

Will Finn said...

I don't have a draft but I;m emailing you a rough breakdown from memory and observation.

Bill Field said...

I was 4, Pete, and I remember the marketing and cereal and pudding premiums, as well as the View Master real and great stuff you could only get at Sears. This was my first Disney Movie on the big screen, and it's my favorite to this day. It was being finished up when Walt died, which added a lot to the interest, as I understand it now. I like the Aristocats, that came next, but it was like 101 Dalmations with Cats, to me, not the great film that Jungle Book is.

Brian Sibley said...

Superb caricatures, Pete! I think you could show a similarly strong comparison between Bagheera and Sebastian Cabot. Excellent work. I didn't know p.o.v. was still in existence...

Pete Emslie said...

Hi Brian,

No, I don't believe that POV is still in existence. This article I had done back around 1992 or so. Hey, it was nice to see you offering comments on the film in the extras on the new DVD release.

Brian Mitchell said...

Hey Pete,
Before I took a look at your blog, I posted something a few days ago regarding the negative comments around the internet about The Jungle Book. It's funny that you have a post defending the film as well. Guess, I'm not the only one that has a strong connection to this movie!
Love the caricatures...keep up the great work!