Poster for The Jungle Book original release (top and bottom verbiage cropped).


Original medium: Prose fiction
Adapted into cartoons by: Disney
First Appeared: 1894
Creator: Rudyard Kipling
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In the late 1950s and early '60s, Walt Disney's studio made a string of animated features — 101 Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone, Mary Poppins … — based on copyrighted books whose authors were still alive and had to be negotiated with. The Jungle Book, released October 18, 1967, represented what must have been a respite for him — a public-domain …

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… project, where the author, being three decades dead, wasn't likely to let his vision for his own work interfere with Disney's. Thus, the only thing stopping "The Disney Version" from being all Disney is the fact that Walt died during its production, making it the last feature he worked on directly.

Legends of feral children, particularly ones in which the part of the foster parent is played by a wolf, go back to antiquity. The most famous ancient one is that of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, but they're common enough for the phrase "raised by wolves", or its equivalent, to have entered many languages as an idiom meaning wild, uncouth, lacking in human sensibilities. Mowgli, the protagonist of most stories collected in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895), was raised by wolves, but in a nice way — instead of displaying the dementia and stunted development found in real or suspected feral children, he grew up in an idyllic wilderness wonderland — not entirely devoid of privation and danger, but on the whole pleasant and friendly, with much scope for adventure, humor and other elements of a good story.

As expected, in contrast to stories in the recent copyright-protected Disney features, which tended to hold relatively true to their authors' intents, Disney's The Jungle Book wasn't what one would call Kiplingesque, any more than his Alice in Wonderland truly represented the work of Lewis Carroll. True to his own inclinations, he made Mowgli's childhood even more of a romp through a fantasy forest. This was the film's main focus of criticism, along with the disjointed, sometimes meandering storyline (which may have had something to do with Disney's unexpected absence during final editing). It was certainly beautifully animated, with engaging characters and an excellent array of music, dancing and song.

The practice of making animated characters look and act, as well as sound, like the well-known face actors who did their voices, is a venerable one, going back to the early days of sound cartoons. Previous examples in Disney features include Ed Wynn (whose voice inspired that of Wally Gator) as The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland and Hans Conried (Snidely Whiplash) as Captain Hook in Peter Pan. It was more extensively used in this one than in any before it, with Phil Harris (Thomas O'Malley in The Aristo-Cats) as happy-go-lucky Baloo the Bear, George Sanders (otherwise unknown as a voice man) as the villainous Shere Khan, and Louis Prima (also not known for animated voices) as King Louie, the wild'n'crazy monkey monarch. This (a subset distancing the story from Kipling's original) was also the target of some criticism, indicating (critics charged) lazy characterization.

Other voices included Bruce Reitherman (pre-teen son of director Wolfgang Reitherman, and voice of Christopher Robin in contemporary Winnie the Pooh productions) as Mowgli, Sterling Holloway (narrator of Mickey & the Beanstalk as Kaa, Sebastian Cabot (Sir Ector in The Sword in the Stone) as Bagheera the panther, J. Pat O'Malley (Snively in Hey There It's Yogi Bear) as Col. Hathi the elephant, and John Abbott (mostly a face actor) as Akela, leader of the wolf pack.

Despite some deficiencies, The Jungle Book was both a critical and a commercial success. Aside from the usual merchandising as toys and the like, it was adapted into a Gold Key comic book. The practice was routine at the time, but would become less so as Disney's personal involvement with the studio receded into history. Like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and other classic Disney features, The Jungle Book inspired a direct-to-video sequel, Jungle Book 2, released February 14, 2003.

It also inspired no less than two half-hour animated TV series. The first was TaleSpin, which debuted May 5, 1990. Baloo played the lead, re-cast as a pilot in a small air transport company. Personality-wise, he wasn't much different from his jungle self, nor were the scattering of other animal characters from the movie all that different from the movie version, except for the radically different setting. The other was Jungle Cubs, which started October 5, 1996. There, the non-human characters were depicted in younger form. Neither was an outstanding hit, but no other Disney feature-turned-series, such as Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, ever had more than one.


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Text ©2007-08 Donald D. Markstein. Art © The Walt Disney Company.