Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Do I Love "The Jungle Book"? You Better Believe It!

It seems that with the 40th Anniversary 2-disc DVD release of Walt Disney's "The Jungle Book" this past week, a lot of animation related bloggers are posting up their memories and thoughts on this animated classic. Check out Disney animator, Will Finn's post here. Since "The Jungle Book" remains my alltime favourite film of any kind since its debut in 1967, I reckon I need to add my reminiscences here too.

When "The Jungle Book" premiered on the big screen way back then, I was just a seven year old kid. I'd already been cartooning since I was about four, mostly from watching the likes of Popeye and Bugs Bunny cartoons on TV, but I'd seen several older Disney features in their periodic rereleases and had definitely developed a taste for Disney animation. But now I was getting to see Disney's latest release as it was appearing onscreen for audiences for the first time! I suspect that for many of us animated cartoon fans who came along at the tail end of the Baby Boom, "The Jungle Book" was the film that really did it for us. I know I was certainly at that impressionable age where this film was like a catalyst that started me toward wanting to be a cartoonist as my life's goal. Yes, I was focused on my future career at the tender age of seven, as frivolous and risky as it may seem, and nothing or nobody was going to take me back to a more practical job in the Man Village!

I think I'll write more on how I came to work as a cartoonist (and ultimately for Disney) in a future article, but today I want to discuss something others are writing about on their blogs that is certainly for me a big part of the film's appeal, namely the voice talents that were used in "The Jungle Book"...

The pages reproduced above are from a publication called "Persistence of Vision", which was started by my friend Paul F. Anderson back about 15 years ago. In the few years it was published, there was no better, more exhaustive journal on Disney history than this one, and I hope that Paul realizes just how many people owe him a big debt of thanks for his efforts in producing such a series of wonderful issues.

Anyway, this was an article I had written and illustrated for POV, detailing the way Disney's animators would often caricature the essential physical elements and mannerisms of the personalities who gave voice to the characters. Whereas it is quite an obvious ploy to use in a human character like, say, The Mad Hatter, basing his looks on that of comedian, Ed Wynn, it takes some clever doing to translate an actor's physical characteristics into that of an animal. I don't wish to repeat myself here, so please read the article to get a better idea of what I'm talking about. Hopefully, you can see from my caricatures how the Disney artists were similarly interpreting the actors' features into animal form.

Michael Sporn has written a very good article on his take regarding Disney using celebrity voices for the characters in "The Jungle Book". I certainly don't share his opinion of the film as a whole, but I certainly understand his criticisms of the voice talents. However, I'd like to share my own thoughts on why I believe that the situation was not quite the same in that film as it is in the rampant, celebrity-driven animated features of today.

Considering that "The Jungle Book" came out in 1967, I think it's fair to suggest that practically none of the principal voice actors employed were anywhere near their height of popularity when they recorded the soundtrack to the film. Phil Harris had been a popular radio personality on both his own show with wife Alice Faye, as well as previously playing the boozy, breezy buddy on Jack Benny's radio show. By the time "The Jungle Book" came his way, he'd been reduced to the occasional guest appearance on a variety or talk show and would have been virtually unknown to kids of the time. Likewise, Louis Prima was not a household name with kids either, having had his hit recording career about 10 years earlier, and even his Vegas show, which would have been geared more towards their parents, was also in its waning years by 1967. George Sanders was many years past his physical prime as a dashing leading man onscreen as either noble hero or nefarious cad, and was currently turning up as a character actor in mostly B pictures by then. Only Sebastian Cabot would have been a familiar voice to kids of that era, as he had just found fame on TV's "Family Affair" as the portly valet, Mr. French.

(Here's a taste of the wild antics of Louis Prima that led to the equally manic King Louie!)

These days, actors are hired for voicing animated characters based mostly on their recognition with contemporary audiences. So it is you get A list actors like Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michelle Pfeiffer all doing lead roles in Dreamworks "Sinbad", and Mel Gibson and Kevin Kline turning up as heroes in recent Disney features. Unfortunately, despite their considerable acting skills and marquee value, none of these actors, at least in my opinion, brought anything much to the roles in terms of vocal "personality". In other words, for all they brought to the performance, the studios could have saved themselves a lot of money and hired virtual unknowns who could give a reading at least as good as, if not better than the big name stars. Frankly, I much prefered the warm, delightful vocal performance of Jodi Benson in "The Little Mermaid", despite the fact she was a virtual unknown outside of her work on the Broadway stage.

I'd argue that all of the vocal talents used in "The Jungle Book" were hired more for the strength of their distinctive and charismatic vocal quality far more so than for marquee recognition. As a kid back then, I related to Baloo the bear because of the warm, rumbling voice of Phil Harris. To this seven year old kid, Harris brought a vocal quality and mannerisms to the role that resulted in pure cartoon magic when coupled with the equally appealing visuals provided by animators, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. I didn't know who most of the voices belonged to at that time, but all of these characters were brought to life for me in a way that made "The Jungle Book" my favourite film back then and continues to be to this day!