Rudyard Kipling's "Jungle Books" had probably ceased being genuinely popular, widely read children's stories for at least a generation by the time the Disney studio got around to adapting them.
Released in 1967 and now in revival, "The Jungle Book" was the last animated feature supervised by Walt Disney himself, who died in December 1966. Its whimsically humorous, lulling style is far removed from what Kipling biographer John Gross has aptly characterized as the "savage enchantment" of the original stories about Mowgli the wolf-boy.
However, the film's popularity with both the public and reviewers testified to the fact that no one was particularly aghast at the softening process.
At an earlier stage of the Disney studio's development, some of the primitive imaginative intensity of the Kipling stories might have been effectively transposed, perhaps in the form of denser, creepier jungle setting and tangible undercurrents of menance. Despite the flowery speaking styles of Kipling's animal characters, a vivid illusion of wildness, of fang and talon, underlines the fantasy.
By the time of "The Jungle Book," Disney animated scenarios seemed to place such a premium on cuteness that Kipling's jungle is not significantly different from the A.A. Milne forest evoked in the studio's versions of "Winnie the Pooh" stories. Predators like Kaa the python and Shere Khan the tiger and scavengers like a quartet of vultures function basically as comics, sometimes with undeniable flair.
Kaa, whose dialogue is amusingly hissed by Sterling Holloway, is also the most amusingly animated character in the picture, shaped by inventive comic circumstance into an astonishing variety of folds, steps, bows and pleats as well as coils.
The vultures date the film in a special way: They were given haircuts and voices evidently derived from teddy boys in general and The Beatles in Particular. The animators didn't seem to differentiate between the groups, a detail which reflects some authentic period confusion but leaves these eccentric birds oddly unassimilated as well as harmless. It's easier to accept the venerable British sound that springs from George Sanders' supercilious Shere Khan, Sebastian Cabot's gentlemanly Bagheera the panther and J. Pat O'Malley's officious Colonel Hathi, a spit-and-polish soldier in the form of a ponderous pachyderm.
Even at a trim 64 minutes, the film seems to dawdle. It begins with Mowgli being discovered as an abandoned, cherubic babe by Bagheers and ends with him returning to human society when a Disney nymphet bats her big eyes and swishes her ample hips at him. His adventures between adorable infancy and moony adolescence never achieve much dramatic urgency, although certain episodes generate cartoon charm and slapstick vitality, especially the scenes with Kaa and the affable, heavy-bottomed bear Baloo, spoken by Phil Harris, whose inimitable Southern hipster vocalizing helped make a bit of the novelty tune "The Bare Necessities."
Although it has beguiling and funny interludes, "The Jungle Book" lacks the narrative suspense and excitement that propel the best of the Disney animated features from the pioneering "Snow White" and "Pinnochio" to last year's "The Rescuers." It seems to reflect the Disney tradition in repose, still expert and pleasing but also a trifle stuffy.
For a while it appeared that the stuffiness might have been irreversible - it was difficult to slog through the "Pooh" featurettes or the feature-length animated "Robin Hood" - but "The Rescuers" once again united storytelling exuberance with animated virtuosity.