The Jungle Book and the sparsity of great animated films in modern cinema

Every December I compile a list of my favourite films of the last twelve months. This clearly won’t come as a surprise to anyone but what is interesting is that recently, among the caped crusader, getaway driver, layered dream reality, amputee love story, tragically dysfunctional mother and son relationship and nutso ballet dancer movies there is an animated film. Last year it was the charming, beautiful and old school Arrietty, the year before that it was the sublime Toy Story 3 and before that there was the mesmerising and enchanting Coraline. Unfortunately I can’t see any cartoons or stop motion models making the list this year.

Monsters University was fun but I don’t feel the need to see it again. Two of this years other big kid’s releases; Wreck It Ralph and Despicable Me 2 on the other hand can be comfortably filed under deeply mediocre alongside the later Shreks, the Kung Fu Pandas and the Madagascars.

Perhaps it isn’t fair to have these kind of expectations, I’m not the target audience after all, but good story telling and film making can be appreciated irrelevant of age. I love Mary Poppins and not for any reasons of nostalgia, it is a genuinely well made and well performed film which I find as engaging today as I did when my age was a tenth of what it is now.

The fact is that properly great animated films, categorised as ones that I would choose to watch quite independently of any children, are not very common and if you are looking for one that is animated then that is an even rarer thing. There might have been as few as seven in the last ten years, the aforementioned Arrietty, Toy Story 3 and Coraline along with ParaNorman, Corpse Bride, Ratatouille and Howl’s Moving Castle. (The Incredibles, Tangled and How to Train Your Dragon were in contention but good as they are they do not compare to those that made the list.)

Go back forty years though, look at the Walt Disney company and you will see that this kind of quality in animation was not the exception to the rule. In 1973 they were at the end of a two decade period in which they churned out a series of fantastic feature length cartoons. Much has been made of the run of quality that came out of Pixar around the turn of the century but their parent company’s back catalogue shows that at their best they were completely untouchable. Between 1953 and 1973 Disney Animation Studios gave the world Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone, Robin Hood, The Aristocats and the real jewel in their crown; The Jungle Book (released on Bluray in the UK this week).

There is something about those old Disney animated features that just seems so effortlessly brilliant and certainly they had none of the freneticism that punctuates modern cartoon films. It was a gentler kind of storytelling and one that ensured that the set pieces never eclipsed the characters and plot.

These films started with the story and then as now Disney had a habit of mining the best tales that children’s literature and pantomime have to offer. Clearly in The Jungle Book, Baloo, Bargheera and Shere Khan are very different animals to those who came from the pen of Rudyard Kipling but the fact that the film was a very loose adaptation of the source material takes nothing away from it. Sometimes it is the right decision to create something very different from the much loved classic you are starting from, allowing both book and film to have value, albeit for very different reasons.

Both Disney adaptations of Alice in Wonderland illustrate this. They are good films and the quirky characters and setting appeal but they stood no chance of being as enduring as those originally written by Carroll so will only ever seem like inadequate imitations. The film of The Jungle Book and the book of The Jungle Book (!?) are so dissimilar that they can be enjoyed without either suffering by comparison. The pages of the novel provide a solid skeleton but the flesh and bones look quite different.

Audiences (and critics) are understandably precious about much loved texts undergoing changes on their journey to the screen but sometimes this can be great (stand up and wave West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You and Clueless, it is you I’m talking about). Interestingly Disney look to be examining their own ‘crimes’ in this area with the upcoming release of Saving Mr. Banks, a Hitchcockian dramatisation of the conflict between W. Disney and P.L. Travers surrounding his adaptation of her book about a certain magical Nanny. (Hitchcockian in the sense that it sounds reminiscent of the film Hitchcock rather than it exhibiting any of the genius director’s traits or flourishes.)

Of course The Jungle Book doesn’t only have a borrowed story going for it, the set pieces are there too. The fight with Shere Khan is exciting, more so for being immediate and not over blown as it would be in a modern CG film, and the collapsing city scene is fun and notably no longer than it needs to be. The best bits though are clearly those songs. The Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You are great songs and great sequences in the film. The now familiar sight of the main characters in the movie dancing and karaoking along to some pop song is an almost laughable contemporary alternative to such wonderful and original songwriting. This tends to be a Dreamworks trait but Disney are guilty of it too with Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons. Back to back productions The Princess and the Frog and Tangled coming a couple of years after can be seen as a much needed apology for this lazy transgression. It isn’t as though Disney had forgotten their great reputation for storytelling through music because Meet the Robinsons was made in the same year as Enchanted which was a glorious celebration of this Disney tradition.

Another element of many mainstream animated features seemingly designed to ensure that they’ll be completely forgotten in a couple of decades is their need to riff on contemporary culture. (Consider films such as Surfs Up, Barnyard, Open Season, Happily Ever After, Robots and Hotel Transylvania then tell me I’m wrong.) Of course The Jungle Book did this too with the vultures but it works when the people you are basing your characters on are perennial superstars such as The Beatles. It isn’t clear if this was chance or careful foresight but the reference is as instantly recognisable now as it was forty six years ago which is impressive. Try watching Aladdin now and see how many of Robin Williams’ pop culture references you understand.

The Jungle Book also has great artistry in its animation. They clearly were not striving to make the backgrounds look real as Pixar now can but there is real charm in seeing the characters dance around in a painting. It is no coincidence that most of the films I have cited as examples of great animations are not computer animated; there is something so appealing about a film that has been crafted by hand. The reef scenes in Finding Nemo are undeniably amazing but I’m more impressed by the streets, rooms and vehicles inhabited by Wallace and Gromit.

Jungle Book also has a great voice cast and while many of the actors were well known it doesn’t seem like stunt casting. Phil Harris and Sebastion Cabot as Baloo and Bagheera both bring warmth and gravitas as required but the best performance is the deliciously arrogant menace in the vocals of George Sanders’ Shere Khan. The only example I can think of to match it is Jeremy Irons in The Lion King and this performance seems to owe a debt to the drawling tiger.

The Jungle Book also has Kaa the Snake who seemingly reappeared in Robin Hood six years later. I can’t think of another example of the same cartoon playing different characters in different films unless you count Roger Rabbit as Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace.

There is one thing in the film I once struggled with. In my teenage years I took issue with the way that Mowgli’s loyalty to his bros melted away the second a pretty girl blinked at him but as I have matured I have come to terms with this.

A great animated family film needs to be unexpected, timeless and stunning to look at. It needs to stand out from the crowd with a properly engaging story and characters you really care about even though they are only drawn, modelled or rendered. The Jungle Book fits the bill, I’m not massively fussed about the scrawny man cub but Baloo apparently making the greatest sacrifice to save him is up there with the furnace scene in Toy Story 3 in the way it tugs the heartstrings.

The Jungle Book was the last film Walt Disney worked on before he died and it is nice that the guy went out on a high. If he really has cryogenically frozen his head for it to be reanimated one day then he’ll be thrilled to discover how well this film has survived. I only wonder what he’d make of the majority of other stuff that has been made since.

Is this one for the kids?

It is every parent’s duty to show this film to their children.

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