The Jungle Book Blu-ray
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, February 11, 2014
Stripped of nostalgia, The Jungle Book isn't quite the shining star of the '60s and '70s Mouse House canon it once was. Disney's 19th animated feature had a troubled production, with firings, rewrites and changes in direction par for the course. And that was before the death of producer Walt Disney, which came just ten months before its theatrical release. Viewed with a fresh pair of eyes, the film's seams and shortcomings are long past showing, and its storytelling and narrative elasticity prove a bit problematic. And yet it's fond memories of the film -- those lingering joys and delights of childhood -- that make it so easy to switch off the critical cortex and reconnect with a love of animated cinema so wonderfully, so intrinsically "Disney." From instantly memorable songs to the colorful wildlife, the adventures of Mowgli the man-cub are brimming with heart, rhythm and soul. It isn't the greatest of Disney's classics, but it's no less accessible or enjoyable today to those who will no doubt cherish it the most: children of all ages.When black panther Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot) finds a baby boy in a basket in the middle of the jungle, he takes the orphan -- Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman) -- to a mother wolf, who raise the child as one of her own for the next ten years. But when a bloodthirsty Bengal tiger named Shere Khan (George Sanders) returns with a taste for man, the wolf pack decides the safest course of action is to send Mowgli back to his people. Bagheera volunteers to escort Mowgli to the closest village; a long walk home that brings the boy across the paths of Baloo the care-free bear (Phil Harris), Kaa the hypnotic python (Sterling Holloway), proud Colonel Hathi (J. Pat O'Malley) and his elephant patrol, the colonel's wife (Verna Felton) and son (Clint Howard), mad King Louie (Louis Prima) and his army of monkeys, and a quartet of kindly vultures: Dizzie (Lord Tim Hudson), Flaps (Chad Stuart), Ziggy (Digby Wolfe) and Buzzie (O'Malley). But even with Shere Khan tracking him, poor Mowgli isn't convinced he should live with his own kind, or that he belongs anywhere but the jungle.
Never mind Mowgli; brave and spunky as he is. The enduring magic of The Jungle Book springs from its motley band of singing, dancing, groovin' animals. You know it. I know it. Personal childhood favorite TaleSpin (1990-91) certainly knew it. (May it rest in peace.) Mowgli is really just the displaced vehicle by which we tour Disney's eclectic, electric jungle and through whom we meet its wildly endearing cast of characters. Baloo, every '60s, '70s and '80s kid's best animated pal. Bagheera, faithful and true, even when dangling at his wits' end. Shere Khan, a fiendishly calculating threat whose presence can be felt even when he isn't lurking in the nearby brush. Kaa, creepy, conniving and hilariously cursssssed with bad luck. Louie... well, it's Louie, God love 'em. He's a ton of fun. And while the slow-to-start, quick-to-close adventure that introduces each new ally and enemy sometimes feels a touch too episodic, there's enough forward momentum and catchy songs to make Mowgli's journey one worth taking.
Revisiting a beloved film you haven't seen in years is always an interesting exercise, and often reveals an entirely different film. Chalk it up to station in life, experience, tastes... pick your poison. Whatever the cause, there are moments where The Jungle Book is something of a relic of a bygone animation age, and it has very little to do with the sketch-work line art or animation style. (One early example: the still-jarring shift from narration to dialogue that occurs within minutes of the title card.) It remains a tried and true classic, sure. But a timeless classic? Kids won't notice, nor will adults wearing critical blinders. Subject The Jungle Book to honest scrutiny, though, and you'll begin to notice the flaws that lie beneath all the humor, toe-tapping tunes
and unforgettable beats. Fortunately, that's the joy of being a kid (or a kid at heart): grinning and laughing along with a childhood classic on its own terms, not picking it apart piece by piece or getting hung up on what could have been. Watching my son savor every minute of The Jungle Book made me envious of his ability to simply love a movie that was loving him right back. Those were the days.
The Jungle Book, like many a recent Disney remaster or restoration before it, features a clean-as-a-whistle 1080p/AVC-encoded video presentation that's a bit too polished and glossy for its own good. It's by no means a failure, and nowhere near the disaster that is the Blu-ray release of The Sword in the Stone. The telltale signs of noise reduction are present, they're just far less glaring and debilitating; almost, almost to the point of being somewhat easy to overlook. Grain has been scrubbed away in its entirety, yes, but the scratchy sketchiness of the animators' line art appears to be intact. (Key word: appears. Without access to the original elements, one can never be 100% certain.) Otherwise, the image impresses and then some. Colors are satisfying and nicely saturated, primaries are quite lovely, black levels are deep, and contrast is dialed in beautifully. There also isn't any significant macroblocking, banding, aliasing or noise to speak of, although a hint of ringing slithers into view from time to time. For the most part, The Jungle Book's presentation will appease the masses, while more stringent purists and videophiles will be slightly disappointed. (Particularly those who see Disney's ongoing remastering and restorative practices as unnecessary, overzealous or indifferent to the original texture of a film or the animators and filmmakers' intent.) Purists' scores will trend lower. Casual animation fans' scores will trend higher. And neither camp is quote-unquote wrong. It's a matter of preference, and as far as my score is concerned, I'm splitting the difference.
The Jungle Book arrives with a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track in tow. No complaints here, other than the obvious: it's overkill. The film's forty-seven-year-old soundscape remains quite flat and front-heavy, albeit precisely as it should. I'll take an accurate, faithful 7.1 mix over a booming, blathering noise-maker more concerned with the number of channels at its disposal than the integrity of the film and its sound design. Dialogue is clean and clear (despite some minor, fleeting instances of tininess and muffling), LFE output is restrained but able-bodied, the rear speakers are used sparingly but reasonably well, and dynamics deliver. George Burns score and the Sherman Brothers' songs sound better than they ever have, as does the entire experience. It may not challenge your system or rouse the neighbors, but Disney's lossless track certainly gets the job done.
The Jungle Book has changed over the years. Whether by way of age or the aging of its fans is up for debate, but cracks in the classic are beginning to show. That doesn't mean it isn't a great Disney animated film, or a beloved classic. Just that it isn't the be-all, end-all my nostalgia-drunk brain told me it was before I started watching it again after all these years. Your experience may be completely different, but that's the joy of cinema. Thankfully Disney's Blu-ray release is an easy one to recommend, with only a few caveats. Its video presentation is solid but slightly scrubbed, its DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track reliable and true, and its supplemental package offers a fine assortment of extras, old and new. Is this the definitive release of The Jungle Book? For now, sure. That said, here's hoping Disney takes a page from Sony and Warner's playbook and revisits its animated classics in a few years, granting each one a more faithful ground-up overhaul that presents each animated treasure exactly as it was meant to be seen.