3.25.2016

On bears and cubs: Reassessing "The Jungle Book" (1967)



With a remake currently in the works, this week seemed like a good time to revisit Disney’s The Jungle Book (dir. Wolfgang Reitherman, 1967), a film I don’t think I’d seen in full in since I was laid up with the chickenpox and a childhood friend loaned us his family's VHS copy (which I proceeded to watch twice in the span of a week).  As it turns out, The Jungle Book—which was the first Disney animated feature to be released after Uncle Walt’s death in 1966—is pretty second-rate.  The episodic plot involves feral-child Mowgli continually falling into the clutches of the jungle’s motley crew of villains (Kaa the snake, Louie the orangutan, Shere Khan the tiger) and being rescued by his odd-couple caretakers, Bagheera the panther and Baloo the bear.  Pleasant as The Jungle Book is in spots, there’s not very much driving it. 
 
The film becomes marginally more interesting when considered as a cultural product of the late 1960s.  Baloo, voiced by the affable Phil Harris, is a quasi-beatnik figure whose attempts to convert Mowgli to his philosophy of hedonism-lite (as articulated in his song “The Bare Necessities”) rankle the unflaggingly square Bagheera.  It’s little wonder that latter-day hipster Bill Murray will be voicing Baloo in the upcoming remake.  


If Mowgli wants to be like Baloo, King Louie the orangutan wants to be like Mowgli; he says as much in what is easily the grooviest of the film’s songs. King Louie (jazzily voiced by Louis Prima) and his court of mugging, cackling monkeys long to attain the legitimacy of those higher on the evolutionary ladder. But Louie and his song are so cheerfully raucous (as raucous as Disney music goes, at least) that his reasons for wanting to be like Mowgli end up getting obscured, if not completely invalidated.  Even as “I Wanna Be Like You” seems to articulate the shame of not being human, everything about it testifies to the pleasures of being an animal. (Apes, it seems, have more fun.) The subtext of this song unwittingly speaks to the ways in which racial otherness is both glamorized and demeaned within the culture industry: as in so many other white-authored cultural texts about racial difference, Louie's primitivism is something to groove to as well as something to fear.  


If the racial politics of The Jungle Book feel over-determined, its gender politics are almost laughably transparent by contrast.  The jungle is a homosocial environment where bonds between men and boys (or "bears" and "cubs") have a pederastic charge.  Baloo and Mowgli’s relationship is so loaded it doesn’t even need explication—the devastation that Baloo exhibits when Mowgli tosses him aside in pursuit of the first girl who crosses his path says it all.

But is it art?  As a longtime fan of the Disney canon, I can’t say that The Jungle Book holds a candle to such masterpieces as Pinocchio, Snow White, Fantasia, or Sleeping Beauty, or even such "second-rate" fare as The Three Caballeros.  Charming though it may be, it lacks magic.  It’s a film perhaps best appreciated by a seven-year-old with the chickenpox.       

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