The Jungle Book
directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
(Walt Disney, 1967)

Robin Hood
directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
(Walt Disney, 1973)

Phil Harris was in danger of being typecast as a pudgy, easygoing bear.

The late actor is probably best known to my generation for his roles in two beloved Walt Disney animations: Baloo, the grey-furred bear in 1967's The Jungle Book, and Little John, the brown-haired bear in 1973's Robin Hood. Both films are dominated by the Harris bears, nearly identical in appearance and attitude, and each boasting a trademark Appalachian drawl.

Both movies, directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, remain high points in Disney's lengthy animation history.

Jungle Book has the distinction of being the last animated film personally supervised by the late Walt Disney. (One of his strict instructions to his staff during its production was not to read the book; anyone looking for an animated interpretation of the Rudyard Kipling classic should look elsewhere.)

The plot in this version is simple. Mowgli, voiced by Bruce Reitherman, has been raised by wolves in the jungle for 10 years. Now, with the return of the malicious tiger Shere Khan (veteran British actor George Sanders) to his part of the jungle, the wolf pack and Mowgli's guardian angel, the panther Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot, narrator for the classic Pooh movies and Mr. French in the TV series Family Affair), decide to return the man-cub to the closest man-village for his own protection.

But Mowgli doesn't want to go, and the next few days are packed with adventures and some really groovy music, man.

The high point of it all is, of course, Baloo, the hippest bear ever to eat a prickly pear. His song, "Bear Necessities," is a Disney classic, and his laidback approach to life is sheer entertainment -- even as he proves a less than perfect role model for young Mowgli.

Swingin' singer Louis Prima also makes an appearance as King Louie, an ambitious orangutan who wants Mowgli's help in making the next step in evolution. Louie's song ("I Wanna Be Like You"), dance and monkeyshines are another peak moment in the film.

Other notable characters include the sinister snake Kaa (Sterling Holloway, better known as the voice of Pooh), the crusty elephant Col. Hathi and his determined wife Winifred (J. Pat O'Malley and Verna Felton), and the unnamed girl who catches Mowgli's eye and steals his heart with a song (Darleen Carr). A quartet of vultures offer a few light moments, but Disney missed the boat by predicting their Beatlesesque appearance would fade in popularity and recasting them as a barbershop quartet.

Jungle Book may bear little resemblance to the literary classic that inspired it, but it remains a fun, delightful feature that will entertain children and adults alike. The music is memorable and there's plenty of action, but little to cause a young viewer more than momentary concern -- with the single exception of the penultimate scene, which contains one of Disney's best misty-eyed moments.

Six years later, Harris's bear would dye his hair brown, wear a cute little hat and squeeze into a tunic to become Little John, sideman to the infamous fox, er, highwayman Robin Hood.

Robin Hood is an unusual hodgepodge of a movie, relying on slapstick for a lot of its laughs and blending the accents and attitudes of Merry Olde England with rural Appalachia. (Robin Hood, Maid Marian and Prince John are English, for example, while Little John, Friar Tuck and the Sheriff of Nottingham boast a hillbilly drawl.)

But it's fun nonetheless, in large part because of its fun and quirky characters.

Prince John and his absentee brother King Richard are both lions, and both are voiced marvelously ("Ah-ha, AH-ha!") by Peter Ustinov. Robin (Brian Bedford) is a winsome fox, so of course Maid Marian (Monica Evans) is a beguiling vixen. (Lucky for them!) And the affably detestable Sheriff of Nottingham is a slovenly wolf (western star Pat Buttram).

Other characters include Sir Hiss, a machiavellian snake (Terry Thomas); Lady Kluck, a plucky hen (Carole Shelley); Friar Tuck, a kind-hearted badger (Andy Devine); Alan-A-Dale, a musical rooster (Roger Miller); Trigger and Nutsy, thick-headed vultures (George Lindsey and Ken Curtis); and a pair of feisty church mice (John "Piglet" Fiedler and Beulah Bondi). And, as mentioned, Harris reprises Baloo as Little John.

Ooh-de-lally, the movie manages to keep me laughing every time I watch it, and it even adds an occasional touch of pathos to keep the giddiness in check.

It's also worth nothing that both movies boast incredible backgrounds in the forest and jungle, and both predate the computer animation that has made Disney backgrounds in recent years less impressive because of its ease.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 7 December 2002

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