REMEMBERING THE BEAR NECESSITIES
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...
All film images: © Walt Disney Productions
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