Reference DVD Review: The Jungle Book

40th Anniversary Platinum Edition Walt Disney
Movie ••• Picture •••• Sound ••••• Extras ••••

Loosely based on Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli stories, this animation feast for the eyes and ears was the last film project under Walt Disney's personal supervision. And the restored picture is astounding, with eye-popping colors and crystal-clear compositions. In short, it's an absolute stunner, providing an ideal test disc for DVD.

That said, with digital technology making each and every shot fantastically bright and detailed, the occasionally dark, rich tones that characterized the often sinister jungle - the kind of verdant greens and pitch blacks that only Technicolor could reproduce - have been lost, changing much of the experience and the charm of the original 1967 images. Still, this transfer is a knockout, and anyone viewing it for the first time won't be disappointed.

The DVD offers the option of either the original mono sound - crisp and cleaned up - or a Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix in Dolby Digital 5.1. Both are flawless and exceptional. Purists may choose the mono, but the surround mix has audio wonders that spring at you from all directions and add immensely to the fun. The jubilant musical numbers, which exhibit considerably more punch, literally envelop you in zesty performances by the most eccentric array of pros ever assembled for a Disney production, including Phil Harris ("The Bare Necessities") and Louis Prima ("I Wanna Be Like You") as well as Sterling Holloway, Sebastian Cabot, John Abbott, and Verna Felton. Acting honors, however, go to the magnificent George Sanders, who hijacks the movie with his villainous portrayal of the evil tiger Shere Khan, lovingly purring menace into each syllable as only he could.

Extras in this two-disc set provide a seemingly never-ending stream of enjoyable games, interviews, music videos, and storyboards. Informative commentary by composer Richard Sherman, animator Andreas Deja, and Mowgli star Bruce Reitherman (son of director Wolfgang) enhances the narrative, and the comprehensive, entertaining documentaries unfold like living coffee-table books. There's even a special segment on a wacky Rhino character (to have been voiced by Frank "Crazy Guggenheim" Fontaine) that was dropped after 2 years in development.

The most impressive (and frustrating) supplement comprises a selection of seven deleted songs by Terry Gilkyson, at least three of which could have propelled this romp from engaging favorite into major Disney territory. "I Knew I Belonged to Her," to be sung by the gaggle of vultures, parodies the British Invasion and contains some very Beatlesque riffs. Disney dampened down this hip aspect and made the characters rather ordinary, their musical contribution replaced by a saccharine barbershop-quartet ditty. "Brothers All" is a stirring ballad, very much like an Ennio Morricone piece in a spaghetti Western - another (then) contemporary cultural nod abandoned for more traditional Sherman Brothers compositions. The elimination of "The Mighty Hunters," supposed to be sung by Sanders, is nothing less than shameful. What could have been . . .

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