The Jungle Book
Reprinted from Funnyworld No. 19 (1978).
The Jungle Book was the last feature cartoon that Walt Disney personally supervised, but seeing it again in 1978—eleven years after its first release—I was struck by its resemblance to the Disney features that have been made since Walt's death. The Jungle Book is very much of a piece with The Aristocats, Robin Hood, and The Rescuers—and for that matter, with The Sword in the Stone, the feature that preceded it. All of these Disney features were directed by Wolfgang (Woolie) Reitherman, and it is his hand, more than Walt's, that one sees at work in The Jungle Book. We have always known that Walt Disney gradually turned away from animation after World War II, and did so decisively in the early '60s. To see Jungle Book again this year, and to compare it with the features that have followed it, is to become aware of how much control over the animated features Walt had relinquished well before his death.
Reitherman has been in some respects a curious choice to succeed Walt Disney as the man in charge of the animated features. He was never known as a "personality" animator; he was associated rather with action (he animated Monstro the whale in Pinocchio, and the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Fantasia) and comedy (he animated for Jack Kinney on Kinney's memorable Goofy shorts of the '40s).
Reitherman's work as a director has been an extension of his work as an animator. From Sword in the Stone onward, broad comedy and furious activity have been the distinguishing characteristics of the Disney feature cartoons. Sentiment—so much a part of the early Disney features—does not figure much in the new ones, and when it is introduced, Reitherman is plainly uncomfortable with it, or anything else that requires delicate shading to be effective. Near the end of The Jungle Book, for example, there is a sticky passage in which Baloo the bear has apparently been killed, and Bagheera the panther is eulogizing him in pseudo-scriptural language. It is hard to tell whether we are supposed to take this seriously or not; the director's signals are not clear. If we knew from the beginning that Baloo was still alive, we could chuckle at Bagheera's sanctimoniousness;if we were were persuaded that Baloo was really dead, we could weep with his friend, the boy Mowgli. But we are shown that Baloo is still alive precisely at the moment when it seems most like a cheat—we have been sucked in, but not quite far enough. We are not pleasantly surprised that Baloo is still with us, because we have not been sure he was gone.
Fortunately, unpleasant moments of that kind are rare in the Reitherman-directed features, because Reitherman does not venture into such territory very often. Under his direction, the Disney features have striven to be amiable and amusing, and little more. In their voices, they are clearly a product of the television age, and they have been consistently successful with a young audience nurtured on TV programs. They simply do not aim as high as the prewar Disney classics and the best of the postwar features, and I know of no one who claims that they do. There is no trace in the Reitherman-directed features of the restlessness, the constant search for something better, that characterized the Disney cartoons through the '30s and early '40s, and was still visible in parts of such cartoons as Cinderella and Lady and the Tramp.
By the early '60s, Walt Disney himself had clearly lost the enthusiasm he once had for exploring animation's frontiers. After the expensive debacle of Sleeping Beauty, Disney was ready to retreat to more modest animated features—and Reitherman was the instrument he chose to bring about this change.
Disney's principal animators—those of the "Nine Old Men" who were still animating when Reitherman became sole director of the features—never really fit into the new scheme of things. Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, the late John Lounsbery—all of these great animators blossomed at a time when "personality animation" was what the Disney features were all about. That is no longer the case; the newer features have not made the demands on the veteran animators' skills that the earlier features did.
The veteran Disney animators really belonged on pictures with ambitions greater than those of Reitherman's features. Because their beautiful animation is better than what is needed to tell Jungle Book's story adequately, much of animation has a dry and studied look. Bagheera moves marvelously, like a real panther, but since there is nothing in the story itself that requires him to move like a panther (the fact that he's a specific kind of animal doesn't make much difference), his feline movements look too much like academic exercises.
In one instance, the dryness of the animation in The Jungle Book is used to advantage, to enhance the elegance of Shere Khan the tiger. Milt Kahl's animation of the tiger would be even more impressive if The Jungle Book were a different kind of movie, and the tiger more of a menace, but at least the gap between substance and technique was closed.
To wish that The Jungle Book were a different kind of film is to wish that the history of the Disney studio after 1959—and, indeed, since World War II—were radically different. The Jungle Book and the features that followed it were as inevitable as the sunrise; in them, as in so many other aspects of the Disney studio's operations, Walt's heirs have abided by his wishes.
The fork in the road did not come when Walt died; the present pattern had been fixed by that time. The real test comes now, with none of the "Nine Old Men" still animating, and Reitherman's retirement only a few years away. Within the next few yars, we should know if the Disney studio is once again a vital force in animation, or has become simply a historical site.