I'm not big on cartoons, even of the Disney variety - possibly because my own artistic abilities are such that in my one and only Art exam (a 'mock' O level) I got a pitiful 8%. However, I do have a soft spot for The Jungle Book, which I saw just the once before the release of this DVD set - on its original theatrical release as a ten year old kid - and I really enjoyed this just-released '40th Anniversary Edition', which boasts the usual Disney warning 'Available for a limited time only' (usually meaning a better version will be along in a few years time!)
There isn't much missing from this two disc 'platinum' edition, other than the top and bottom of the picture as the idiots have apparently decided to present the film to fill up your widescreen TV rather than present it in its original aspect ratio. You can read background information on this change in aspect ratio, along with other fascinating stuff, on my friend Brian Sibley's blog, and Brian is featured on the excellent extra's featurettes that are packaged on the second disc of this two disc set.
There isn't a lot of story to Jungle Book, and what little there is doesn't have much to do with Rudyard Kipling's source novel on which it's supposed to be based, but that's not a weakness here.
Mowgli a young abandoned human orphan is brought up with a pack of wolves, under the watchful eye of Bagheera the panther, until Bagheera decides that the 'man cub' has to be returned to his own kind to escape the wrath of Shere Khan, the tiger with a silky-smooth voice but deadly claws. The film tells the story of Mowgli's journey and the various creatures he meets along the way: a squad of soldier elephants lead by crusty retired Colonel Hathi, Kaa the slippery, seductive, but fortunately incompetent hypnotic snake (sounding eerily like Winnie the Poo!), the amusing but psychopathic, self-proclaimed Kind of the Apes Louie, a barbershop quarter of Liverpudlian vultures who sound suspiciously like Paul, George and Ringo, and best of all, best buddy Baloo the Bear.
40 years on, the film has lost none of the charm I remember from that first viewing, and it's not hard to see why as a kid I developed a sudden appetite for a breakfast cereal I'd never been interested before (Sugar Puffs) because of its free colour Letrasets of the main figures. This animated film presses all the right buttons, thanks mainly to great, strong, instantly-memorable characters and stand-out songs that will now be familiar to all. It's quite an achievement when one realises that the emotion and empathy the film instills in its audience is just the result of some lines and inks drawn on paper.
Casting is perfect, as one has come to expect from Disney, with the characters even being drawn to reflect the appearance of their vocal counterparts, with Phil Harris as slacker Balloo the Bear, being the sort of buddy everyone would like to hang out with.
Comedic value is featured throughout with incredible performances from not just Harris but the entire vocal cast. George Sanders is well known to film fans for his 'British cad' performances, perhaps best exemplified by his role as the narrator and gossip columnist in All About Eve, but was he ever in finer form than he is here as the deadly Shere Khan? His performance here is beyond exquisite, it's perfection!
The transfer is as impeccable, barbaric cropping issues aside, as one has come to expect from Disney's 'Platinum' series, and the songs are beautifully presented in a strong surround sound mix. The DVD itself is presented in the usual Amray case, encased in a luxurious slip-case, which goes some way to justifying the high price tag. In the afore-mentioned blog post from Brian he mentions an included booklet - not in my British retail copy (or anybody elses, I suspect) there isn't! Just endless leaflets for offers such as a Parrot smoothie, or the chance to win a trip to DisneyLand Paris, or a home entertainment system if I buy laundry products.
Yet again we Brits seem to have been screwed when what we get for our inflated prices are compared with what the American market gets for less money. This proves to be yet another release where you're better off buying a Region 1 player and importing the DVD from the States.
Fortunately, the extra's disc help takes some of the pain away, with a series of thoughtful and well researched featurettes on the film and its animators, instead of the usual mindless kiddie-oriented 'games' fare we often get with these 'family-oriented' DVDs. The kids will probably be bored by all the interviews with old men reminiscing about what working for the Disney studio in the 60's was like, but I was fascinated throughout.
Extra's aside, if you've got kids then The Jungle Book should be considered an essential purchase. Forty years on the film stands the test of time, and is infinitely preferable to more technically accomplished 3D fare (I made the mistake of watching the recently issued The Robinsons on Blu-Ray before this standard DVD and there really is no comparison - The Jungle Book comes out way ahead, even to this jaded, adult viewer).
Even if you don't have kids you should treat yourself to this DVD set as I did (although given the missing booklet from the UK release, importing from the States looks like the best option). If you're not tapping your feet throughout and then pressing the 'Eject' button at the end with a big stupid kid's smile on your face at the end then you probably need to check that you've still got a pulse. Highly recommended!