One Man, One Woman, Eight Decades of Disney Animated Features watched in order, and the overly complex system they invented to grade them. These are our thoughts, rants, and observations.
This is Disney By The Numbers.
This is the end, my friends.
Oh no, it’s not the end of Disney By The Numbers- we still have over half a century of films to grade. But this is the end of Disney’s Silver Age. It’s been a bumpy ride… though not quite as bumpy as the Golden Age was. The Golden Age soared high then crashed hard. The Silver Age maintained a higher standard of quality overall, with the last few films letting the rest down just a bit. The Sword In The Stone, in particular suffered from the external forces Disney Animation was subjected to during this era.
So what of its follow up? Both The Sword In The Stone and The Jungle Book had the same animation team, they used the same technology, and most of the same people worked on it. Given that, one might think that it would have similar results. But The Jungle Book had a few secret weapons that The Sword In The Stone couldn’t benefit from, something that managed to elevate it a bit and allow Disney’s Silver Age to end on a high note.
But as with most things, it’s a bit more complicated than that. How so? Well allow me to break it down… by the numbers!
- Theme 2
- Tightness of Script 2
- Dialogue 1.5
- Use of Comedy 3
- Use of Drama 1.5
While The Sword In The Stone did well enough financially, critically the reactions were mixed, with many feeling it was below the standard that Disney had set. Among these people was Walt Disney himself.
He’d pulled away from animation for years, between inventing Disneyland, getting the feature film division up and running, submitting exhibitions to the 1964 World’s Fair, and going to war with P.L. Travers over a nanny and some penguins, he was kind of swamped.
But with the World’s Fair behind him, Mary Poppins soaring him to critical acclaim, and Walt Disney Studios at an all time high, Walt felt it time to take a more active role in the next animated feature. Once again he sat in on story meetings, reviewed the art, gave suggestions and lent a deft hand. He even began acting out the characters as he used to during the Golden Age, including becoming particularly enthused while demonstrating how Baloo should dance in his first scene.
And this is a bit of a pet theory of mine, but I feel that after the next to impossible struggle he had with P.L. Travers in making Mary Poppins, Walt wanted to work on a film where he had nothing holding him back. He repeatedly told writers, artists and even the Sherman Brothers to completely ignore the source material and do whatever they wanted in adapting the book to film.
The result? The Jungle Book has that classic Disney flair. There’s style to it, the humor lands, the characters have a certain comforting wholesomeness that you can just feel. And on top of all that, these features feel natural to the film. It doesn’t seem forced or like it’s on auto-pilot but rather purposeful and charming. This was the ingredient that the later Golden and Silver Age films lacked.
But let’s not look at things blindly. While Walt’s input certainly helped the film, it also held it back. This wasn’t the Walt Disney of the the 30s, the brash filmmaker who made films filled to the brim with cuteness and brightness while also giving kids nightmares from the scary and dark places the story could go; all the while pushing the boundaries of what Animation could do. This was “Uncle Walt”, the face of the Walt Disney Company, who needed to uphold the image of a family friendly, harmless entertainment.
The original treatment of The Jungle Book was much darker, including having Mowgli gun Shere Khan down with a rifle. When Walt stepped in, he stripped away nearly every dark element to the story. Which isn’t, in and of itself a bad thing, but it’s a far cry from the days when he would put the Devil himself in a film.
Still, while The Jungle Book became a much safer film than it could have been, the flip side is it remains an unquestionably fun and entertaining film. But Walt was just one of the key ingredients to this film.
- Lyrics 4
- Score 5
- Number of Songs 2
- Notoriety of Songs 4
We can talk about the Jungle Books script and characters all we want. But if you really want to get into the heart and soul of this movie, it’s the music that matters. Think on this movie for a moment. What parts do you remember? Odds are it was maybe this scene:
Or maybe this one
Or maybe this one
What I’m driving at is that the most defining, memorable parts of The Jungle Book, are the songs. The characters shine when they’re singing and dancing, the plot moves along with each song, and they make even weird, milquetoast villains like Kaa seem more entertaining and funny. The Jungle Book is defined by its music more than almost any Disney movie that isn’t Fantasia or its best friend Fantasia 2000.
But if I need to prove my point, just go ahead and admit it to yourself, when you looked at those animated gifs, your brain immediately kicked in and started singing those songs in your head. I don’t have to tell you what song are playing in these images, you already know because of how memorable the songs are.
And we really have two men to thank for that (technically three, and that third one isn’t Walt).
The Jungle Book marks the end of an era, but not the pinnacle of Walt Disney’s film career. No, that honor belongs to a movie that came out a few years earlier, a little movie you’ve probably never heard of.
This landmark film and The Jungle Book share a key thing in common. That would be the Sherman Brothers. The songwriting duo had been working for Disney since the early sixties but had really begun hitting their stride in 1964 when they wrote songs for the world’s fair (“It’s a Small World” and “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”) and Mary Poppins (I’m not going to list the songs, if I did this would turn into a review of Mary Poppins) and then… The Jungle Book.
Virtually every song in The Jungle Book lands as an instant classic from the jazzy fun of “I Wanna Be Like You” to the hypnotizing “Trust In Me”, they fit the film perfectly and define the characters that sing them. The only exception to this is “The Bare Necessities”, not because it isn’t iconic, but because it’s one of the few songs in the film that the Sherman’s didn’t have a hand in.
After a few movies with few or forgettable songs, to see a Disney film with bonafide classics drives home the importance of music to establishing that “Disney Feel”.
- Fluidity of Animation 2
- Use Of Color 2
- House Style 2
- Character Design 2
- Breaks New Ground 0
Now it’s time to let a little bit of air out of this balloon. Because these classic Disney movies have three main elements, story, music, and animation. Of these three aspects, the animation is the weakest. Now this isn’t to say that animation is bad per se. It’s the same scratchy xerography that we’ve had since 101 Dalmatians and would go on to define Disney Animation until 1989.
And when comparing the animation in The Jungle Book to some of its contemporaries, such as The Sword In The Stone or The Aristocats, it’s actually a few steps above them. The scratchy lines aren’t quite as noticeable in this film.
Furthermore, we need to praise the character design. The animals move the way they should and Baloo’s design in particular is so iconic that they completely inserted him into Robin Hood as Little John a few years later and hoped we didn’t notice.
So clearly they were doing something right.
- Character Interaction 3
- Importance To Overall Plot 1.5
- Complexity 1
- Pulls At Heartstrings 0.5
- Overcomes Obstacles 0.5
Oh look! This movie has a real love story! It’s the classic tale of a boy feeling lonely then meeting swinging jazz hippy bear and the two of them establishing a father/son/uncle/nephew/jedi/padawan rapport. You know, one of those very standard relationships.
Mowgli has a number of characters that are looking after his well being, but the only one he actually winds up caring about is Baloo, who genuinely cares about him too… and is really, really bad at it.
Sure, Baloo is well-intentioned father figure, but the film is under no delusion that he’s actually good at it. He accidentally knocks Mowgli around, loses him to the monkeys within five minutes, and has to be argued with to even see what would be best for the boy.
In spite of that, Baloo is there when it really counts, fighting off Shere Khan when literally nobody else would. That’s some loyalty. So even if it’s flawed, it’s still admirable.
- Sidekick 2
- Charm 0.5
- Goodness 0.5
- Emotional Transformation 0
- Comedy 0.5
I swear that someday we’ll get back to the point where we can cheer on the hero. But it is not today. Mowgli is… how do I put this… he seems to have the survival instincts of an over-caffeinated lemming.
Time and again, the animals, tell Mowgli that he can’t stay in the jungle because Shere Khan will rip the bear necessities out of him. Mowgli’s response is to tell them that they’re dumb and that he’s totally capable of surviving on his own.
And they still keep telling him that he can’t do it and he keeps insisting that he is completely capable. When even Baloo, the one guy that wanted to keep him there, insists that Mowgli needs to leave the jungle, the boy digs in his heels and stubbornly refuses to leave.
In fact, when he finally meets Shere Khan he maintains his unearned confidence and defiantly tells the tiger that he’s not afraid and won’t run from anyone. Because… you know… he’s super capable.
But he’s not. He’s really really not. He has to be saved time and again from certain death by Bagheera, by Baloo, by the Beatles… I mean Vultures. And he never figures it out. We’re supposed to think that he’s just a brave kid… but at a certain point, it becomes clear that there’s a clear line between bravery and stupidity and Mowgli didn’t just cross it, he pole vaulted across and then did a cartwheel.
- Evilness 2
- Comedy 0.5
- Sophistication 2.5
- Henchmen 0
- Poses A Threat 2.5
Shere Khan on the other hand, isn’t an idiot. In fact, he’s very nearly a top shelf Disney villain. He has just about everything we’re looking for. He wants to murder a kid for the mere fact that he’s a kid and might know how to make fire, so we know he’s evil. He’s not even in the first half of the film but still has a near Maleficent-like presence in the film, with all the animals speaking of him in hushed tones like he disappeared after failing to kill an infant but might come back someday.
And that’s with good reason, because Shere Khan is an actual threat. The gif in the previous section where he puts the fear of God into Mowgli? Yeah, the only reason that doesn’t end in his vulture friends becoming even better acquainted with him is because Baloo saves the little ingrate.
And then there’s the voice, the high class british accent, the deep cadence, it all works to make Shere Khan a memorable and entertaining villain that you almost root for… and considering how annoying Mowgli can be at times… yeah, you pretty much are rooting for him.
- Comedy 2.5
- Inventiveness 2.5
- Clear Help Or Hindrance 2.5
- Strength of Relationship with Main Character 2.5
No discussion of The Jungle Book is complete without talking about the supporting characters. Because while the music is the best feature of this film, the supporting cast isn’t far behind. Baloo, Kaa, Bagheera, King Louie, all of these characters have make this film worth watching.
Now, I’ve given Baloo a bit of grief for how bad a “parent” he is, but that’s not meant to take away from how entertaining he is to watch. Baloo is every inch a classic Disney “sidekick” taken from the same mold as Jiminy Cricket , Timothy Mouse or the Genie. He’s the type of character that steals the show the first time you see him and the one which you’re counting down the minutes to see in a rewatch.
In fact, if we were judging on “Protagonist” instead of “Hero”, a case could very easily be made for this film to be Baloo’s story rather than Mowgli’s. He’s the one that has an emotional transformation and grows a bit as a character vs Mowgli who just leaves because he saw a girl for the first time.
While Baloo is the stand out character of the film, there’s another, less appreciated character to mention and that’s Bagheera. Sure, Baloo is a kooky jungle hippie, and that’s all entertaining by itself, but that works best when he’s playing opposite of Bagheera to be the straight man. While Baloo is bursting into King Louie’s party because he wants to dance, it’s Bagheera makes it comical with his no nonsense approach and refined personality to bounce off of. I couldn’t care much about seeing the adventures of Mowgli and Baloo, but I’d get in line to see a show about the straight laced panther and his bumbling buddy the bear.
Disney Magic and Legacy
- Theme Park Presence 1
- Timelessness 2
- Impact On Culture 2
- Scope of Audience 2
- Disney Feels (Or Did It Make us Cry?) 2
Because The Jungle Book is a classic, you can find its presence throughout pop culture and within Disney itself. Baloo and King Louie can be seen in the parks now and again and both Louie and Kaa used to be part of the Disneyland version of Fantasmic, aka the greatest show ever made.
And while the soundtrack, when you really pay attention to it, feels like something out of the 60s, it still somehow manages to be timeless, as entertaining to kids and adults today as it was when this film first came out.
And the characters themselves have proven themselves equally timeless. Not only has Disney remade the Jungle Book into live action twice but they’ve folded Shere Khan, Bagheera, Louie and Baloo into other media, including the ridiculously better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be Disney Afternoon show, Talespin.
And beyond the scope of simply the Disney sphere, it’s worth noting the impact the film has had on pop culture. The Jungle Book has been adapted by other film companies and remains a property that the general population knows of primarily because all of us were first introduced to the story through the Disney film. Considering it’s actually a fairly small film, that’s impressive. While it isn’t perfect, it’s exactly the type of movie to cap off the Disney Silver Age.
But the question is… why exactly does The Jungle Book mark the end of the Silver Age? In terms of style, animation, and feel, it has more in common with with 101 Dalmatians, The Sword In The Stone, and all the movies that came after it until the Disney Renaissance. One might think then that the Disney Silver Age should have ended several years earlier with Sleeping Beauty.
In truth, it’s for the same reason that The Jungle Book stands out from The Sword In The Stone and the films that came after: Walt Disney. This was the last animated feature that he had a direct hand in. The movie came out in 1967, less than a year after Walt passed away. It’s the end of the era because the man that invented the animated feature was no longer there to inspire and guide future films. It’s the last of a certain type of film Disney would ever make. From here on out, Disney films would change, even if they tried very hard not to.
At the end of the Jungle Book, Mowgli leaves the Jungle, in spite of Baloo urging him to come back. It’s a moment of sadness and inevitability filled with weight and emotion. But when it’s over, Baloo and Bagheera pick themselves up and head back into the jungle singing, dancing, and creating new memories. However, all the while they also wonder about what Mowgli would have done until they’ve basically driven the jungle into the ground and turned it into a shadow of what it once was. Only to resurge with new and creative jungle dances and songs for about a decade before falling into another rut, but finally coming out of that but falling into the trap of repeating the same song over and over just with new animals.
There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, but it may have gotten away from me.
Either way, the Walt Era of Disney Films represents some of the best films ever made. Like the man who produced them they ran the gamut from folksy to progressive, wholesome and dark, but above all, innovative. They’re far from perfect but when they land, they do it with such style and imagination that you believe, if only for a few moments, that magic is real, and dreams really can come true.