No other classic Disney feature relies so much on its voice cast to put the movie over. THE JUNGLE BOOK, based loosely - key word being "loosely" - on Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli stories, has no real plot beyond a panther and a bear's quest to take young "man-cub" Mowgli to the local village before a man-eating lion gets to him. The boy meets a bunch of other animals along the way, gets kidnapped a few times, and in the end, reaches the village where he falls in love with one of those patented Disney females with the big, twinkly eyes.
Perhaps Walt Disney, who died while this movie was in production, knew such an empty story needed a superior voice cast to make it work, because for the first time, most of the major parts are voiced by stars. Not gigantic stars, but stars nonetheless like Sebastian Cabot, Phil Harris and Louis Prima. The emphasis on who is playing all the jungle animals is evident in the credits, where everybody gets their own individual name check. As well they should, because they create such wonderful characters, it is easy to ignore the lack of a story. With his soothing, uppercrust British tones, Cabot is pitch-perfect as the sophisticated, intelligent panther who finds the boy and acts as his mentor. Harris creates the film's most memorable character, Baloo the bear, a happy-go-lucky layabout whose days consist of sleeping, scratching his back on trees and eating ants. Although the villain Shere Khan the Tiger has limited screen time, George Sanders fashions a cool, debonair and loathsome scoundrel who could win a three way staring contest with Professor Moriarty and Lucius Malfoy. Although the practice is taken for granted today, THE JUNGLE BOOK began the trend in animation of creating the characters to fit the star.
THE JUNGLE BOOK is a fun, likable film but not an involving one. There is nothing to keep you glued to the screen except the thought of who Mowgli may meet next along the jungle path. Luckily, he keeps meeting such interesting characters, such as King Louis of the Apes, played by singer Louis Prima, who does a marvelous jazz-scatting duet with Harris. There's also the Elephant Army, Kaa the Snake - a minor but memorable villain voiced by Sterling Holloway - and a group of vultures patterned on The Beatles. These vultures don't sing a Merseybeat-style song, but rather a barbershop quartet, because Walt did not want to date the film. Their song is pretty good, as are most of the others in the film. In fact, the back to back production numbers "The Bear Necessities" and "I Want to Be Like You", sung by Harris and Prima respectively, are THE JUNGLE BOOK's major highlights.
Some people have often criticized Disney for his casual reinterpretations of classic material. For THE JUNGLE BOOK, he told his staff to throw away the book and just keep the characters. This may irritate Kipling fans, but for the average movie fan, it is hard to argue with the results. THE JUNGLE BOOK may be something of an offhand, meandering Disney film, but there are far worse things to be in this world. - JB
THE VOICES OF THE PEOPLE
Sterling Holloway, who plays Kaa the Snake, had a long association with Walt Disney. His high-pitched, slightly hoarse voice is instantly recognizable as that of the original Winnie the Pooh. Holloway also played such characters as Mr. Stork in DUMBO, The Cheshire Cat in ALICE IN WONDERLAND and Roquefort the Mouse in THE ARISTOCATS. He was seemingly always on call to be a Disney narrator too, performing those honors in THE THREE CABALLEROS, MAKE MINE MUSIC and PETER AND THE WOLF, among others. A fine live actor in his own right, Holloway had a long career outside of Disney in the movies and on television.
Verna Felton was also a favorite of Disney. She played Winifred the Elephant in THE JUNGLE BOOK, a role she must have found easy, as she also played an elephant in DUMBO. Among the other characters she played in Disney films were The Fairy Godmother in CINDERELLA, The Queen of Hearts in ALICE IN WONDERLAND and Aunt Sarah in LADY AND THE TRAMP. She is probably best remembered as a television character actress of the fifties and sixties, a kind of small screen Margaret Dumont. Felton died one day before Disney himself, on December 14th, 1966.
Although he doesn't appear in THE JUNGLE BOOK, Bill Thompson was also one of the great Disney voice artists, although he is most famous for his voice work with Tex Avery at MGM, where, among other characters, he was the voice of Droopy Dog. For Disney, he was, among other characters, The White Rabbit in ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Mr. Smee in PETER PAN and several characters, human and dog, in LADY AND THE TRAMP. Like fellow voice artist Mel Blanc, Thompson did much work on radio, especially in the classic series Fibber McGee and Molly, where he developed the character of Whimple, with a voice that he would later reprise for Mr. Smee and Droopy Dog.