Monday, April 6, 2020

Walt Disney, part XXIV: How lucky I was that he had been out of the office, I would have felt really bad if I had told him to go to hell or something during what were the last few days of his life


Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
Written by Bill Peet, Larry Clemons, Ken Anderson, Ralph Wright, and Vance Gerry (based on the short stories by Rudyard Kipling)

Spoiler: well, he's not terribly likely to bang a wolf, is he?

I have, I'm sure, belabored the point that Walt Disney had become disengaged with his cartoons.  The process had begun almost half a lifetime ago for him; by 1966, some two-thirds of the Walt Disney Studio's history had been marked by its founder's growing disenchantment, beginning, I think, when Fantasia crashed and burned and took his greatest ambitions for his medium with it.  Afterwards, Walt's enthusiasm only returned in fits and starts, increasingly rarely of a duration sufficient to guide a whole feature, at least the way he'd done it in his studio's Golden Age.  As he receded even further during the 1950s, the person to whom much of the de facto responsibility for feature film development fell was Bill Peet, Disney's longest-surviving storyman, who'd begun at the studio as an inbetweener in 1937, and had started planning his escape from that underappreciated and overworked position before he even took the job.  He had never been exactly content: he grew to resent the star animators, the Nine Old Men who got all the credit, and who were treated by Walt as virtually irreplaceablein contrast to the storymen, whom he tended to regard as cogs.  There may not have ever been a time when he didn't resent Walt himself, for at least the animators had an actual talent to call their own, while, in Peet's view, Walt was just a guy who'd somehow become the head of cartoon studio despite being unable to make them himself.

Peet's increased prominence during the 1960s was reflected in the fact that One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword In the Stone remain the sole examples in the Disney canon of a solo writing credit.  The next and final Disney animated feature of the 1960s, The Jungle Book, would have been the sameexcept, Walt had one of those fits I mentioned, his last, and when Peet came to him with a pitch for a movie adapted from Rudyard Kipling's anthology, Walt was fascinated.  Briefly, he considered live-action instead, though it's hard to imagine how such a thing would have avoided the pitfalls that beset Korda's 1942 live-action production, particularly the temptation to favor the village over the jungle because the former didn't require dangerous animals, and the inherent difficulties of putting those animals into a narrative in the first place without winding up with something more akin to an exercise in montage theory than a movie.  Doubtless anticipating precisely those problems, Walt changed tack pretty swiftly, and focused his attention upon one of his cartoons like he hadn't in years, throwing himself into story development, even acting out the bits the way he'd used to.  This didn't make Peet happy.

Naturally, Peet had clashed with Walt numerous times over the course of his careerEric Larson had championed Peet's vision for the "Once Upon a Dream" sequence in Sleeping Beauty, though for someone so obsessed with credit, it's interesting that, in this instance, Eric Larson took the falland they clashed anew over the direction that their Jungle Book should take, with Walt continually insisting on "entertainment" at the expense of Peet's more serious interpretation of Kipling's comparatively sober talking animal stories.  Obviously, Walt won every argument he felt like winning; and yet it represents, to me, a mystery not satisfactorily resolved by either the official history or by what I know of Peet's version of it.  For starters, the two projects that Peet had undeniably been the principal mover of were themselves already two of the most featherweight films Disney had ever made.  Peet's sensibility and Walt's could not really have been so far offI mean, Peet had persevered under Walt's thumb for 29 yearsand precious little suggests that Peet's interpretation was one of genuinely family-unfriendly darkness, or even that Peet had instincts about appropriate children's fare that approached Kipling's own starchy, authoritarian moral tales.  Hell, Peet's version already had "The Bare Necessities."  It can't really just have been that Peet wanted to show Shere Khan's corpse, could it?

Maybe it was.  The thing Peet resisted the most was the inconsequentiality Walt demanded, and whatever it was that proved the final strawit helped that Peet had carved out an independent niche as a children's book author over the previous couple of yearsThe Jungle Book was where Peet took his leave of Walt's despised studio.  But then, Walt would not be a part of it himself for much longer, and, on 15 December 1966, Walter Elias Disney passed away.  This is why so many Disney home video releases have annoying anti-smoking advertisements bundled up with the trailers.  Yes, perhaps it seems odd that I began our discussion of Walt's last cartoon with a history of a subordinate whose name is not even on the final product, but I hope it emphasizes what I've always meant to get across: we owe nothing to Walt Disney that we do not owe alike to every person, from the nameless painter to your favorite Old Man, who helped make their shared dreams come true.

The Jungle Book was effectively complete by the time Walt died, and if "breeziness" was what he was after, by God, he got what he wanted, and this worked out so well that it's the only canonical Disney film that anybody respectable considers inferior to its live-action/"live-action" 2010s remake.  For my part, it's not my second-favorite Jungle Book, since Andy Serkis' widely-ignored 2018 passion project does still exist.  Even third-favorite might just be the result of force-feeding myself four different iterations of the thing inside a 48-hour span, because while I'll admit I started getting real damn bored with the same "boy raised by wolves, fights tiger" story, it's not like either the aforementioned 1942 Korda production or Soyuzmultfilm's series of suspiciously-timed animated shorts, also beginning in 1967 and collected into the feature Maugli in 1973, don't have their finer points: the former boasts some stunning Technicolor and, uniquely, accepts not only that Mowgli has a penis, but that wolves are incapable of fashioning undergarments to cover it, which is frankly the one thing I've always wanted out of one of these stupid movies; meanwhile, the latter is often a striking showcase for its modernist, extremely un-Disney design and animation.

My third-favorite Jungle Book ain't too bad, either, and though it tends to embody every single one of Disney's problems in the 1960s, it minimizes the worst of them, sometimes even making them strengths; and here's where I admit that, for me, the Disney version carries the power of chronological priority from who-knows-how-many childhood viewings, and so it shall always remain The Jungle Book in my mind, regardless of whether that's actually a good thing.  Still, for all its modifications and omissions (indeed, for all it mispronounces its hero's name), Disney's version manages a recognizable recreation of Kipling's first three Mowgli stories.  We begin years ago, in the forests of central India, when the panther, Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot), discovered the abandoned human infant Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman), whom Bagheera entrusted to the wolves to raise, and who, by his very existence, had made an implacable enemy out of the man-hating tiger, Shere Khan (George Sanders).  Now it's a decade on, and it's whispered that Shere Khan has at last returned to these parts from, well, wherever it was he went.  And thus Bagheera, with sad resolution, takes it upon himself to escort Mowgli upon a dangerous trek to the safety of human civilization, despite Mowgli's repeated assertions that he'd prefer to stay.  On their journey, they encounter several denizens of the jungle who take an interest in Mowgli's case, like the lazy bear, Baloo (Phil Harris); the pompous elephant, Hathi (J. Pat O'Malley), and his long-suffering mate, Winifred (Verna Felton); the megalomaniacal orangutan, King Louie (Louis Prima); the devious python Kaa (Sterling Holloway); and a full quartet of curiously Liverpudlian vultures, who are more fun before it becomes apparent they're not just patiently waiting for a meal.

It's testament to Disney's cultural predominance that I doubt any of that even sounded wrong until I got to "vultures who are also the Beatles," though conceivably you blinked at "Winifred."  Yet there's not a single character here who isn't at least subtly repositioned, and usually not "subtly" (and of course there are several characters who never even previously existed).  Walt's guiding principle for Peet's replacements was "don't read the book," and while Larry Clemons and his team still did, because they weren't assholes, you could be forgiven for believing they took Walt's instruction literally.  Beatle vultures are just the most forceful expression of the film's whole attitude, and while the 60s had seen Disney trend away from timelessness and toward contemporization, this is where we reach the point that an entire project was conceived (or reconceived) with the aim of being hip and with-it, or at least as "hip" and "with-it" as Disney was capable of getting.

Hence the casting of jazz musicians Harris and Prima, and the liberty afforded them to define their characters for themselves far beyond the confines of the script (Harris in particular, also a comedian, more-or-less rewrote Baloo on the fly); and hence also the strongest Disney musical to date, which is about the only way to figure it when Baloo's enduring ode to lackadaisical self-sufficiencythe sole survivor of a whole other soundtrack, composed by Terry Gilkyson before Peet flipped Walt the birdis still only like its fifth best song.  The Sherman Brothers took over, and wound up with an impressively varied soundtrack of their own: "I Wan'na Be Like You" does a fairly fantastic job of giving a voice to Kipling's lawless, clueless, striving primates; the mysterious, insidious "Trust In Me" is the first Disney villain song to deserve the description, and maybe the best thing this Kaa's got going for him; "That's What Friends Are For" is what happened when the Beatles turned their proffered role down, but its oddball Beatles-as-a-barbershop-quartet style does Beatles-as-barbershop so adeptly that it's not uncommon to see folks labor under the mistaken belief it is the Beatles; and then there's the incongruous closing ballad, "When I'm Grown," which at least has the benefit of shutting down the film on one of its most intriguing notesand I might as well get it out there, I rather love this Jungle Book's reframing of the story's moral.  It's arguably even more conservative than Kipling the colonialist's, drawing a definitive line between humankind and the natural world which Mowgli needs to put himself on the correct side of, but it does give his coming-of-age a real finality in the ironic loss of his man-cub innocence to the first blush of his animal nature, that is, his sexuality; ultimately, it sort of implicitly concedes Shere Khan was right (for do Bagheera and Shere Khan not have something of the same goal?), and it's also cute, and, in this one thing, I strongly prefer it to any other version.

On the other hand, there's "Colonel Hathi's March," twice and terrible, and while the songs are hardly any reason this Jungle Book doesn't entirely succeedquite the oppositethey come part and parcel with a tone that's often too light to be taken seriously.  The elephants are easily the worst of ita stereotyped parody of a Colonel Blimpish figure, bleeding into sub-sitcom-grade marriage comedy, all of it superfluous and existing solely so Milt Kahl could draw some very ugly elephantsbut this is only the failure mode of a film that's often nothing more than a dubious comedy, which is a shame because I like most of the characters and wish they could've struck a better balance with them.  This is especially true of Mowgli himself: Bruce Reitherman once again proves that his major qualifications for a central role were "being prepubescent" and "being the director's son," though it's not all his fault; the story offers him little beyond his single-subject whining, and he's largely useless, either in terms of an emotional focal point, or just in terms of simple competence.  This is another departure from Kipling's stories, where Mowgli isn't much better-characterized, but certainly has more charisma.  This could never be the Mowgli of the fiery eyes, whose animal companions cannot bear his gaze.

So this Jungle Book consistently errs on the side of friendly approachability, and if it ever manages any sense of danger and mystery, it's more like an accidental byproduct of the process of rendering the darker source material into a hang-out musical: Shere Khan is almost a great antagonistalbeit one not well-served by remaining an insubstantial rumor who's forgotten more often than he's remembered for more than half the filmand Sanders' performance is truly inspired, essaying an affable, patient villainy that's so secure in its powers that it doesn't need to waste its energy on threats.  I daresay I like this force of nature Shere Khan better than Kipling's contemptible malcontent.  But then, this Shere Khan is also a largely-ineffectual force of nature (our belated introduction to the character is his failure to kill Bambi's mom's subcontinental cousinwhich means that he can never be as potent as Man, which, I suppose, checks out).  Kaa, meanwhile, is a special case: there's not another Kipling character more radically reimagined in this film, and in principle it should work.   Walt did it for spurious reasons (he thought audiences wouldn't respond positively to a snake), but he wasn't wrong that for all their atavistic adventure, Kipling's Mowgli stories are rather lacking in personalized animal enemies, and thus he had the great innovation to turn Kaa into a villain, but, unfortunately, only one who's been downgraded in size, strength, and dignity from the book's demidivine figure, and one who's even less effective at doing villainy than Shere Khan, mostly because he's more frequently the butt of the film's try-hard comic relief.  (Kaa's genuflection to Shere Khan is maybe this film's most misjudged scene that isn't blatant filler.)  Yet there's a certain symmetry between the two even so, considering that they're always each defeated by knots; somebody on this film was in freaking love with the gag of tying an animal's tail in a knot, so much so that it happens three times.  In fairness, they only drew it twice.

Which brings us to The Jungle Book's overarching problem, which is that it's hard not to constantly assess it against an idealized version of itself, had it been made 27 years earlier, with the greater command of mythic force and the profounder attention to animal animation that pertained in Disney's Golden Age, such as made a talking animal cartoon like Bambi an all-time masterpiece, despite it making do with objectively less-exciting animals.  The xerographed animation here has its charms, particularly Kahl's Shere Khan, who is (on the occasion he's in the movie, I guess) a splendid study in big cat musculature and coiled potential energyeven if this tiger, it turns out, can change its stripes as often as The Jungle Book can cut to another angle; likewise, it's hard not to be impressed by Kahl and Frank Thomas's fluid work on Kaa, though the Kaa of the Soviet Maugli (not to say obvious first principles) makes it equally hard not to notice how much potential for phantasmagoric spectacle they left untapped in favor of jokes.  But then there are those elephants, never more than tiresome gag figures, and the most abrasive examples of the scratchy, unfinished-looking quality of the xeroxed lines, if surely not the only ones.  The Jungle Book has more than its fair share of recycled animation, including from the movie we're already watching.  The staging overall is frequently awkward, with the lingering feeling that boards were just removed without modifying anything around them, especially repeated instances where characters are treated like they don't exist if they're outside the frame.

There's a thoroughgoing sensation that whatever Walt's investment in The Jungle Book was, time and resources were never lavished upon it.  The backgrounds in particular make for a very instructive case in this regard, and not because they're slapdash or bad; the apocalyptic complexion of the dead glade where Mowgli has his first and final confrontation with Shere Khan does more to sell the downbeat epic tenor of that scene than the confrontation itself does, and it's easily the best set of backdrops in a Disney film since Sleeping Beauty eight years and another era before.  But they fluctuate wildly.  Sometimes it's Disney's most beautiful and most detailed background paintings of the 1960sa few, I believe all of them right at the beginning, even get multiplane and effects animation, and there's not much more of any of that stuff to come, unless the plot very specifically requires it.  But then, sometimes, the backgrounds do little more than gesture towards the general idea of "the jungle," and there's not much rhyme or reason as to when, except that the latter are more prevalent in scenes that were in all likelihood done later and were pushed out the door as fast as they could go.

And yet, The Jungle Book does, fundamentally, work: the tripartite dramatic spine of Mowgli's coming of age, Baloo and Bagheera's two-dads routine, and Shere Khan's obsession keeps the film from ever spiraling too far down into the comic vignettishness that constantly threatens it; and, as noted, you can't just overlook that, without its lightweight constitution, it would have had a very hard time accomodating those songs.  (One need only look to the remake to confirm that.)  Walt did not get to see it, at least not in finished form, but I expect he'd have liked it a great deal: for all its faults, it's warm and amiablemuch as he preferred to think of himself, and, yes, as he often was.  Plus, it made money.  He would've gotten a kick out of that, too.

Score: 6/10

No comments:

Post a Comment