JungleBookcoverGrade:  B+
Entire family:  Yes
1967, 78 min., Color
Rated G
Aspect ratio:  1.75:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes Blu-ray, DVD, DigitalHD copy
Bonus features:  A-

Many people point to Sleeping Beauty (1959) as the last film in the Golden Age of Disney Animation and consider the seven full-length animated features that the House of Mouse made over the next three decades to be lesser accomplishments.

But I think you can build a pretty good case for The Jungle Book and 101 Dalmatians rising to the top of that second tier of Disney animated films. Both were directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, one of Disney’s Nine Old Men—the original animators who were with Disney from the very beginning—and film each has its positives. With 101 Dalmatians it was a terrific villain, 101 dogs, and an exciting narrative. With The Jungle Book it’s the great songbook, characters, and voice talents that elevate it above some of the other films made during this period.

An enchanting soundtrack from George Bruns and memorable songs by the Sherman brothers and Terry Gilkyson add pep to the narrative and even seem to give the animators a shot in the arm. The plot and pacing may be nearly as lazy as the sloth bear Baloo (Phil Harris), but animators use that to their advantage, developing the characters so that even minor ones seem majorly entertaining. 

As in Kipling’s 1894 tales, we get Akela (John Abbott), the wolf whose family raises Mowgli; Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot), a black panther who serves as one of Mowgli’s guardians; Hathi (J. Pat O’Malley), an Indian elephant who gets promoted to Colonel in Disney’s version; Kaa (Sterling Holloway), an Indian python who keeps trying to hypnotize Mowgli so he can eat him; and Shere Khan (George Sanders), a Bengal tiger who wants to kill all humans. Added are King Louie of the Apes (jazz master Louis Prima) and a gang of orangutans who hang out in ancient ruins.

JungleBookscreenThe narrative is nearly as simple as a Playhouse Disney story. Mowgli is discovered as a baby by Bagheera, who leaves him with a wolf pack he knew that had just had a litter of cubs. Fast forward to an adolescent Mowgli, and with the tiger Shere Khan’s return to their part of the jungle, the wolf council decides to force Mowgli to go back to the world of “man.” If he stays, they know that Shere Khan will kill the boy and punish all those who aided him. It sounds menacing, but the characters are so endearing and the tone so mellow that there’s never really the sense of peril that we get in more contemporary films.

The bulk of the story follows the animals’ somewhat convoluted attempt to get Mowgli to the nearest village, though each character feels like a jazz solo in this music-driven film. One of the most beloved songs in the entire Disney playlist is featured here, with Phil Harris singing “The Bare Necessities.” But almost as catchy is Louis Prima’s “Oo be do, I wanna be like you” song (“I Wanna Be Like You (The Monkey Song)”), and the step-along “Colonel Hathi’s March” that will have the kids marching in place. Add gorgeous watercolor backgrounds and no shortage of sight gags and you have a film that has as much zest today as it did when it was first made.

Disney had perhaps the clearest vision of any creative talent in Hollywood, and The Jungle Book is the last project with which he was personally involved. Though he died before it hit theaters, he would have been proud of the final cut. And he would have loved the way it looks in HD. This combo pack comes with some nice new bonus features and includes all the features from the previous DVD release. There’s also an activity book and Digital HD copy.