The 1967 Walt Disney Productions version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is noteworthy for a variety of reasons. It was one of only three animated films made by Disney during the 1960s (after 101 Dalmations in 1961 and The Sword in the Stone in 1963). It was the first film to feature celebrity voice casting, calling upon the talents of comedian and bandleader Phil Harris, jazz musician Louis Prima, and noted actor George Sanders. But most importantly, The Jungle Book was the last animated film to be personally overseen by Walt Disney himself before his tragic death and therefore marks the end of an era.
The plot would be dangerously thin in almost any other movie: Mowgli is a human child in India who has been discovered in a basket by a panther named Bagheera, who soon recognizes that the boy faces great danger the longer he stays among the animals. Bagheera must get Mowgli back to the safety of his own kind before he’s discovered by the tiger Shere Khan. What this loose plot allows is plenty of character moments, and it’s the character moments that make the movie. Kipling’s original setting of India during The British Empire’s reign is intact, with the animals representing different Imperial roles (elephants represent the British military), but it’s all more or less pushed into the background in favor of bits and songs. It turns out that one of the great strengths of the movie is the liberties it takes with the source material and the extra time we get to spend with the animals that Mowgli encounters on his trek. There’s also a sense of fun and adventure that wasn’t found in previous Disney animated movies, which traditionally seem to aim for something very different. The Jungle Book just wants us to have a good time and “forget about your worries and your strife.” For most of the movie, it’s simply the story of a bear and his boy.
The other standout is Louis the orangutan, king of the swingers. Louis Prima voices the character with the same jazz cool that he brought to his raucous recordings and performances, and the segment that he features in has been my favorite ever since I first saw the movie as a kid. The song “I Wan’na Be like You” is just amazingly catchy and fun with the call-and-response scatting section and the vocalized trumpet noises that Prima’s band members made with their mouths. According to the behind-the-scenes information, the original performance of the song was so rowdy that it had to be toned WAY down before it could be inserted into the film. King Louis is only on screen for a few minutes, but he nearly steals the movie. I have always associated King Louis as being the coolest of the cool.
Further lending life to the story are the great songs from The Sherman Brothers. Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman are responsible for a massive amount of Disney hits including those from Mary Poppins, the theme from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and earworms from the parks like “It’s a Small World (After All)” and “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.” They even wrote the song “You’re Sixteen” which can be heard in American Graffiti and which Ringo (another Beatles connection!) later covered and took to number one. Ironically, the only song the Sherman Brothers DIDN’T write for The Jungle Book is “The Bare Necessities,” undeniably the breakout musical number of the film. That one is credited to Terry Gilkyson, who was working on an earlier version of the movie before Walt steered the production into the different, lighter direction we now see. Still, those Sherman Brothers songs, along with almost everything else they wrote, are so catchy and memorable that they’re like Christmas carols. Their contribution to this movie cannot be downplayed, because it’s a huge part of the magic.