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Oh. It’s you. Fuck do you want?
Yeah I’m drunk. So what? I can review just fine…don’t…just back off. I’m fine. Just, you’re crowding me right now and I feel like I’m losing my balance like you’re giving me vertigo OH FUCK…
Okay…I’m fine. Sorry. I’m sorry everyone. I’m so sorry.
Stool…Stool can you ever forgive me?
Ohhhh Christ I’m a mess. Yeah, so I needed a stiff drink or twelve after seeing this week’s movie again. See, The Jungle Book is a very important movie for me. This is the first movie I ever saw in a cinema. One day in the eighties my mother brought me to a tiny little one screener called the Regal Cinema in Youghal, Co Cork. Amazingly, I mentioned this to my mother when I was getting ready to write this review and it turns out it was also the first film she ever saw in the cinema too, and that she was brought to that exact same cinema when it first came out in 1967.
Youghal has been absolutely hollowed out by the recession and the Regal closed in 2011 after seventy four years in business but I still have that memory. Watching The Jungle Book with my mother, maybe around three or four years of age, laughing at Baloo and Louie, and being a little scared but not too scared of Shere Khan and Kaa. First Disney movie I ever saw and it was just pure joy. That was the day I learned how much a piece of art could mean to you. And then I watch it again and…ugh I need a drink.
So what’s the problem? Is it not as good as a I remember it? Is it the animation? No, in fact, the animation is actually better than I remember it. Scratchy sure, but a lot cleaner than Sword in the Stone and 101 Dalmatians. The songs, then? The comedy? The songs are the best the Shermans ever did for Disney with the exception of Mary Poppins and it was, is and remains probably the funniest of all the Disney movies. So why have I launched an Operation Barbarossa-like offensive against my own liver?
Because my friends, reviewing this movie means we’ve got to talk about racism.
Yes. We do. Stop crying. Stop it for God’s sake, it’s undignified. I know we already went over this in Song of the South. But this is different. And to be honest, I’m not even going to attempt the usual Unshaved Mouse style review of this movie until we’ve gotten this out of the way.
Excuse me a moment.
This movie…appears to make…this movie appears to make use of the “Black People as Monkeys” Trope.
Which, if that is the case…damn. I mean, that is really as bad as it gets. That’s the very bottom. Aside from the awfulness of dehumanising a race of people like that in and of itself, that was the “intellectual” rationale for slavery. The idea that black people were subhuman and therefore could be enslaved without guilt. Along with the myth of Jewish “blood libel” it is probably the most viciously destructive lie in all of human history.
Now, unlike Song of the South where the problematic treatment of race ran throughout the entire film, The Jungle Book’s race issue comes down to a single scene. Mowgli is kidnapped by monkeys because, as in Rudyard Kipling’s original book, they want him to teach them how to make fire. What Kipling’s book does not have, however, is a jive talking orangutan king called King Louie and a jazz number whereby the Monkeys sing about wanting to be human and which includes the line…
“You see it’s true-ooh-ooh/An ape like me-ee-ee. Can learn to be hu-uu-uu-man, too-hoo-hoo!”
First of all, how do you do that? How do you take something by Rudyard Frickin’ Kipling and make it more racist?!
So, open and shut case, right? This is the most racist thing committed to film since Birth of a Nation?
Okay. Here we go.
Look, I really, really, really, really, don’t want to get a reputation as being the guy who defends racism in Disney movies. I mean, this blog is both influential and trendsetting and I realise that a great many people look to me for moral guidance.
And I have an awful feeling that if I say what I’m about to say the next thing I know is I’ll be hearing this:
But…here’s the thing. It’s BAD. No question. But I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as you might think. To repeat, it’s BAD. I’m not denying that. Not for a second. But I think that a lot of the reasons that people say this scene is racist don’t actually hold up to scrutiny. Let’s take those lyrics I quoted above. Now…if the movie is genuinely presenting Louie and the monkeys as stand-ins for black people, if that is actually what the intention is, then that’s unforgivable. If however, they are not meant to be stand-ins for African-Americans, then the lyrics are harmless. It’s simply what it is, an orangutan wanting to get the secret of fire so he can move up the evolutionary ladder. There is no other level on which to read the song, much less a racist one. So it all hinges on this one question. Are we supposed to think of Louie and the monkeys as “black”?
The fact that they sing a jazz number is unquestionably problematic. There’s no way to deny that. Jazz is a quintessentially African-American music style, very closely identified and linked to black culture. So giving I Want to be Like You to Louie was an insensitive, knuckleheaded, extremely offensive thing to do. But…at the same time, a jazz aesthetic infuses the entire movie and it’s not the only jazz number in the film, Trust in Me and Bare Necessities could both be considered part of the genre. I don’t think that on its own the fact that Louie and the monkeys were given the song is proof enough of a deliberate attempt to paint black people as apes. If this was a court of law I’d call it cumulative evidence rather than causative evidence. Cumulative evidence can be used to strengthen a point made with other evidence but is not strong enough alone to make that evidence. To do that, we’d need to take a harder look at the characters. Now, I’ll admit that I was operating on something of a misapprehension for a long time as regards the character of King Louie. For starters, I thought that he was based on jazz singer Louis Armstrong, and I think I actually believed for a while that he was VOICED by Louis Armstrong. And I could be wrong, but I think that’s a pretty common misconception. The internet is full of false musical facts that just seem to keep on living no matter how many times people try to correct them.
Now, casting one of the most famous black jazz musicians of all time as a talking ape would be horrendously racist and would pretty much end any debate here and now. But King Louie was actually voiced by and based on jazz singer Louis Prima.
That’s right, Louie was actually voiced by a white guy. In fact, Disney specifically cast a white singer precisely to avoid the kind of racist implication that people now draw from this scene. And this is a big part of the reason why I think the scene is not actually as bad as it looks at first glance. See, this movie was released in 1965 during the height of the civil rights movement. And yet, unlike Song of the South which brought instant condemnation and protests from the NAACP upon its release in the forties, I can’t actually find any evidence that there was any racial controversy surrounding The Jungle Book. The charge of racism against this movie seems to have only come in later decades. And part of the reason for that is that Louis Prima is no longer as famous or recognisable as he was at the time of the movie’s release. Audiences today see the movie and think that King Louie is based on Louis Armstrong or some other presumably black jazz singer. But audiences in the sixties would have simply seen a cartoon version of Louis Prima, aping (sorry) his very distinctive stage persona. But as the movie recedes into the past, it becomes less clear to modern audiences that Louie is supposed to be a specific individual (the white) Prima, and Louie instead becomes to be viewed as a generic jazz singer, and therefore black. To give a modern example. Let’s say for example, that while making Aladdin in the nineties the Disney writers got into the medicine cabinet decided that they wanted to make Abu a rapper. With me so far? They want the cartoon monkey to be played by a famous hip-hop artist and to rap, an art form as inextricably linked to black culture as jazz. Pretty damn racist, right?
But let’s say that the rapper they cast in the role of Abu was this guy…
They try to defuse any possible racism by casting the most famous white rapper in the world in the role, and they model Abu’s look and personality on Eminem.
Is it still racist?
I’m actually asking you, I have genuinely no idea. Bottom line is, King Louie is about as racist as Abu being voiced by Eminem. If you think that’s not racist, it’s not. If you think it is, it is. That’s about the size of it.
As for the monkeys…here’s the thing. Remember the crows from Disney?
Now they were clearly meant to be black. That was the joke. They were crows and they were black. Their mannerisms, their accents, it was all meant to demonstrate their blackness with all the subtlety of a ninety year old Kentucky Civil War widow. But with the monkeys in Jungle Book, you don’t get that. I’m serious, if you listen to their spoken voices they’re quite obviously voiced by white guys and no attempt is made to give them stereotypically black mannerisms or accents. They’re just…cartoon monkeys. That’s it.
So, my final word before starting the review proper is this: The portrayal of King Louie and the monkeys in the Jungle Book is the same stupid, insensitive, unthinking, stumble-footed racism that we have seen in many Disney movies before now and will see again before we’re done. But I think to accuse the movie of a deliberate attempt at dehumanisation and a portrayal of black people as apes is inaccurate and doesn’t hold up when you actually study the piece.
Everyone got that? And, to reiterate:
Now. Let’s actually take a look at the damn movie.
The Jungle Book opens with the panther Bagheera (Sebastien Cabot) finding a human baby in a boat in the middle of the jungle. Bagheera tells us that “had I known how deeply I was to become involved, I would have obeyed my first impulse and walked away.” Okay. So now we know something about Bagheera. He’s a liar. There is no way that was his first impulse.
Instead, Bagheera decides to leave the child in the care of some local wolves who’ve recently had a litter of puppies that conveniently allows the artists to reuse some animation from 101 Dalmatians. In fact, it’s at around this point in the canon that the recycling of animation starts to become really noticeable. We’re not yet at the worst offender (cough cough Robin Hood) but Jungle Book is pretty bad for this. As well as Dalmatians there’s recycled sequences from Sword in the Stone, and Ichabod and Mr Toad.
Anyway, the wolves adopt Mowgli and even make him some nifty red speedos and he grows up as just another member of the pack. Soon however, word reaches the wolves that Shere Khan the tiger has returned to their part of the jungle and the leader of the pack, Akala, decides that Mowgli has to leave. Shere Khan hates humans and will kill Mowgli and anyone who tries to protect him.
Bagheera offers to take Mowgli back to the Man Village, and on the way explains to him why he can’t go home, namely that Satan’s own pussycat has got beef with him. Mowgli says that they should just explain to Shere Khan that Mowgli is not really a man, but Bagheera retorts that “Nobody explains anything to Shere Khan.”
Mowgli says he wants to stay in the jungle but Bagheera tells him to put a sock in it and they climb a tree to spend the night. Bagheera goes to sleep and Mowgli finds himself face to face with the python, Kaa, voiced by Sterling Holloway.
A few people asked me after the Mary Poppins review why I didn’t mention the differences between the movie and the books and the simple reason for that is that I had never read them. Now, I have read Kipling’s Jungle Book but I won’t be going on about the differences between the book and the film in the same way I did in the Peter Pan review because frankly I think the Jungle Book does a better job of standing on its own as a movie. It’s far less faithful to its source material than Peter Pan was, (pretty much all the major characters are radically different), but I like it more because it does something new and entertaining rather than just trying to follow the original story in a half-assed way and not really getting it like Peter Pan. Kaa, for instance, is a completely different character in the original book. For starters, he’s Mowgli’s friend and mentor, a massively powerful 100 year old python who’s always on hand whenever Mowgli needs some ass kicking done. In the movie he’s a comic relief villain, who first hypnotises Mowgli before trying to eat him. Fortunately, Bagheera wakes up just in time to scream “Kaa!”
Bagheera saves Mowgli but now Kaa has Bagheera in his sights and he knows just how to deal with him.
But Mowgli pushes Kaa’s coils off the tree, saving Bagheera. All well and good, but then Bagheera starts giving Mowgli all this snotty “So, you can look after yourself?” stuff and I’m sorry that’s bullshit. From where I’m standing that’s Bagheera saving Mowgli once, and Mowgli saving Bagheera once. That’s a draw. In fact, when you factor in that Mowgli is a little ten year old in speedos and Bagheera is a frickin’ panther Bagheera should really keep his damn mouth shut. If anything, he’s the one who should be going to the Man Village.
Anyway, the next day they’re woken up by Colonel Haiti and his elephant patrol. Haiti is voiced by J. Pat O’Malley pretty much reprising his role as the Colonel in 101 Dalmatians and as usual doing a flawless English accent.
We get our first song, Colonel Hathi’s March which is probably the weakest in the film but only because the rest of them are so stellar. It’s a brisk, martial tune sung by the elephants as they march through the jungle, where they admit that they really have no idea why they’re marching. We also meet Hathi’s wife, played by Verna Felton…
Three cartoon elephants!? She played three cartoon elephants? How does that even happen? That has got to be the most bizarre case of typecasting I have ever heard of.
And Hathi Jnr played by…holy shit Clint Howard!?
It’s a fun scene but it doesn’t really have any effect on the plot. In fact, the elephants are pretty much entirely superfluous to the whole movie. Mowgli and Bagheera continue on their journey until Mowgli flat out refuses to go any further and Bagheera tries to drag him the rest of the way.
Finally Bagheera gives up and storms off, leaving Mowgli alone in the jungle. Mowgli then meets one of my favorite Disney characters of all time.
Well, who doesn’t love Baloo? Who couldn’t love Baloo? I am not prone to hyperbole, but anyone who doesn’t love Baloo is in all probability a Nazi. Baloo is voiced by Phil Harris, mostly improvising his own dialogue and he’s so good that Disney essentially had him do the same part two more times, in The Aristocats and Robin Hood.
Baloo tries to make friends with Mowgli but the kid’s not having any of it and tries to beat Baloo up.
Baloo, realising that this kid has got a terminal case of the stupids, offers to teach him how to fight like a bear. Which, if you don’t have claws, fangs, a six foot reach and the strength to bend reinforced steel, essentially boils down to you lazily slapping people with your limp fleshy arms. Bagheera hears Baloo’s roaring and thinks that Mowgli’s in trouble and rushes back saying “I should never have left him alone!”
Bagheera tries to take Mowgli back to the Man Village but Baloo’s having none of it, saying “They’ll ruin him! They’ll make a man out of him!” Baloo says that Mowgli will stay with him and launches into The Bare Necessities probably the most famous song in the whole film and, interestingly, the only one not written by the Sherman Brothers. There was an older version of the script written by Terry Gilkyson that was too dark for Walt’s liking and was completely re-written, with this song being the only thing to carry over between the two versions. It’s not hard to see why. The Bare Necessities is a great song, a sunny, breezy ode to being a lazy bastard. I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. Baloo. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.
Bagheera gives up, because that’s what he does. He’s a quitter. And Mowgli and Baloo are left to enjoy a life of ease and indolence for about ten seconds before Mowgli gets kidnapped by some monkeys and Baloo has to call on Bagheera for help.
The monkeys take Mowgli to a temple deep in the jungle to meet Louie. We’ve already covered this scene pretty extensively in the introduction so let me sum up.Louie sings I Wanna Be Like You, which is fantastic notwithstanding any possible subtext. Bagheera and Baloo arrive, Baloo dresses up as…a…hippo…?
Bagheera and Baloo manage to get Mowgli out of there with the help of some recycled footage from Ichabod and Mr Toad and in the process bring down the Hindu temple around Louie’s ears.
Later that night, Bagheera tries to convince Baloo that Mowgli needs to leave the jungle. Baloo is resistant at first, but when he hears that Shere Khan is after him he changes his tune. The movie does a fantastic job of setting up Shere Khan as a serious threat. Most Disney villains appear very early on in the movie, but we don’t actually see Shere Khan until almost two thirds through the film. But the effect the mere mention of his name has on the other characters, even Baloo, is very telling. Baloo finally realises that it’s a choice between getting Mowgli back to the Man Village or becoming just another Shere Khan related statistic so he tries to convince Mowgli to go with him. Instead, Mowgli freaks out and tells Baloo that he’s “Just like old Bagheera!” which obviously is way over the line. Mowgli runs off and Baloo and Bagheera desperately search for him.
We finally see Shere Khan stalking menacingly through the tall grass about to pounce on…oh seriously?!
It’s not enough that you traumatised whole generations of kids with her death, you have to constantly put her in danger over and over again?
Anyway, Hathi’s elephants stampede through, scaring off Shere Khan’s lunch. Shere Khan is voiced by George Sanders, in one of the most perfect pieces of casting in the history of Disney movies. Sanders made a career out of playing honey-voiced upper class cads and here he sets a template for some of the greatest Disney villains to come.
Jafar, Scar, Frollo. They’re all Shere Khan’s glorious bastards.
Shere Khan overhears Bagheera talking to Hathi about Mowgli and sets off to find “the helpless little lad.”
Meanwhile, Mowgli has fallen into Kaa’s clutches again and I gotta say, even as a little kid, it bugged me that they weren’t able to keep Kaa’s design consistent between his two scenes.
Maybe he had work done. Anyway, Kaa manges to lull Mowgli asleep with Trust in Me, and I’m finding it really hard to find new and different ways to say that all these songs are fantastic so please just take it as read. Kaa is about to begin the process of slowly digesting Mowgli over several weeks when Shere Khan arrives and we get a lovely visual gag of the tiger pulling Kaa’s tail like a door bell.
The scene where Shere Khan interrogates Kaa is a brilliantly suspenseful comic set piece and both Holloway and Sanders are fantastic. Holloway’s nervous desperation as he tries to keep Mowgli hidden and Sanders’ hilariously cordial menace make it one of the highlights of the movie for me. Finally, Shere Khan stalks off much to Kaa’s relief but Mowgli has already woken up and pushes Kaa off the branch again and runs off.
Alone and friendless, Mowgli finds himself in the bleakest part of the jungle, a barren wasteland devoid of greenery or life of any kind. An utterly desolate wilderness, shunned by man and forgotten by God.
Mowgli meets the four vultures Buzzie, Flaps, Ziggy and Dizzy who are modelled on the Beatles. They tease him at first, but when they realise he’s an outcast like them they take pity on him and offer to be his friends. They sing We’re Your Friends, a barbershop number that is probably my favorite song in the whole movie. In fact, get me drunk and chances are I’ll start singing this.
Interestingly, this was originally going to be a pop song in the style of the Beatles. Walt decided that would immediately date the movie because the Beatles were just a flash in the pan fad who’d be all but forgotten in a few years time.
So instead, the song was changed to a barbershop number, making these vultures probably the second greatest cartoon barbershop quartet that has ever been.
The song is cut short however when Shere Khan arrives and finishes the song with his bowel loosening bass voice. Shere Khan offers to give Mowgli a ten second head start because he is a gentleman and a class act. But Mowgli instead picks up a small stick and gets ready to fight him off.
Baloo arrives and manages to grab Shere Khan’s tail just before he can kill Mowgli. The vultures fly the kid to safety but now Baloo has to deal with the tiger, who proceeds to award him his doctorate from the school of Why-You-Do-Not-Fuck-With-Shere-Khan.
A lightning strike sets a nearby tree on fire, and the vultures distract Shere Khan long enough for Mowgli to tie a burning branch to his tail.
Shere Khan runs off with his ass on fire and it seems as if our heroes have prevailed. But at what cost?
You killed Baloo. No. Shere Khan, you killed Baloo! You stripey bastard, you killed Baloo!
Mowgli tearfully tries to wake Baloo and Bagheera arrives from…wherever he was. Doing something very important no doubt. Definitely not hiding like a filthy coward while Baloo died a goddamn hero you pompous ass! Tell him how useless he is now, you jerk! It should have been you, goddamn it! IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN YOU!
Oh God. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. I’m just emotional and bleeding internally from all the whiskey.
Bagheera eulogises Baloo’s heroic sacrifice while the vultures look on dejectedly.
But then Baloo suddenly snaps out of it and it turns out he was alive the whole time, and was simply pretending to be killed by a savage tiger. What an actor. Also, he pretended to be dead just so he could hear all the nice things Bagheera said about him. Pardon me a moment.
Okay, so Baloo, Bagheera and Mowgli are rambling through the jungle and it finally looks like Mowgli is going to get to stay in the jungle after all when he hears our final song My Own Home. This leads him to the outskirts of the Man Village where he sees Shanti, a girl from the village singing as she gathers water. Mowgli is entranced and nervously follows after her while Baloo and Bagheera watch from the bushes.
My Own Home is a lilting, almost lullaby like song where Shanti sings about her day to day life in the village, and how one day she will have a husband and a daughter of her own. There is also an unmistakeably seductive vibe to it. I don’t mean sexually, ‘cos that would be weird, but definitely a feeling that Mowgli is being lured into something he won’t be able to get back out of. Bagheera is delighted. Baloo is distraught. I just kind of wish Mowgli had some advice that fell between the two extremes.
Anyway, Mowgli surrenders to the strange new tingling in his speedos and follows Shanti back into the Man Village, where he will live happily ever after.
Baloo is sad, but Bagheera tells him that it was inevitable and that Mowgli is where he belongs now. Baloo brightens at this, and the two walk into the sunset singing The Bare Necessities.
The Jungle Book was a rare beast, a box office smash at the time of its release and a huge hit with the critics. It was also the last movie that Walt had any involvement in, he had already passed on by the time it was released. And by all accounts he played a huge role in the creation of this film, far more than he had with say, Sword in the Stone. Walt made many of the choices regarding characters and music that have made this movie the crowning achievement of the Scratchy Era. This was his final farewell to the medium upon which he’d left such a huge and unrivalled mark. Next week, we’ll see just what effect his passing had on the studio that he left behind.
This is tricky. There is some genuinely lovely character animation here, especially with Kaa and the feline characters. But it’s very uneven and I have to mark it down for some quite noticeable recycling.
The Leads: 18/20
Mowgli, Baloo and Bagheera are the perfect trio, brilliantly bouncing off each other.
The Villain: 19/20
A vast improvement over the book version in my opinion. The literary Shere Khan was a rather pathetic figure, lame and cowardly. Sanders infuses the character with wit, charm, grace and sheer obsidian-black menace.
Supporting Characters: 18/20
Brilliant across the board.
The Music: 19/20
It’s the Sherman Brothers at the very top their game.
FINAL SCORE: 87%
NEXT WEEK: WE CAN HAZ ARISTOCATS REVIEW?