Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book - Part 2: Kaa's Hunting

An important character was rather absent from the life story of Mowgli found in the first chapter of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. Where's the bear?

Baloo was barely present in the first chapter to vet the young man-cub, but fell away after that. His major part of the story comes in with the book's second chapter, a "midquel" to the first chapter. It is also prefaced with another song by another absentee character: Kaa the python. Obfuscated by the Disney animated version, each of the characters are examples of real Indian wildlife. Baloo, for instance, is a sloth bear. The former range of this insectivorous bear stretched across the entire subcontinent, though finds itself restricted from the edges and large parts of the south today. Kipling's name undoubtedly derives from the Hindi term for the sloth bear, bhālu. The author was, however, no naturalist. Certain of Baloo's habits, like eating honey and nuts, are more typical of the Asian black bear which is not found in India. The two species are not closely related.

A sloth bear. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Bagheera is a black Indian leopard, a regional subspecies of the same leopard that spans Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Typically leopards are yellow with black spots, but a recessive gene can give them an excess of melanin. Black leopards still have their spots, but are a beautiful black-on-black. Shere Khan is, of course, a Bengal tiger. Ironically, a male lion in Hindi is called a sher and a tiger is called a baagh or vyaghra. The Seoni District, where The Jungle Book is set, includes the Pench Tiger Reserve.

This chapter also provides the bulk of the plot for Disney's 1967 Jungle Book. Mowgli is abducted by the monkeys, who take him to an ancient abandoned city so they can make him their leader. Baloo, Bagheera, and Kaa run in for the rescue. In the original version, Baloo is actually the sterner disciplinarian, the Teacher of the Law, while Bagheera is the more lackadaisical and indulgent of the man-cub.

Without further ado, we now present the second chapter of The Jungle Book. Once more, the complete book can be found at Project Gutenberg.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

BBC's The Real Jungle Book Animals

The formal relationship between Disney and the BBC yielded the first of the theatrical nature documentaries released under the Disneynature imprint. Titled Earth, it was an abridgment of the BBC's stunning, award-winning series Planet Earth. Even without Disney's formal participation, the BBC has found a way to carry on a symbiotic relationship. Timed to coincide with the new "live-action" Jungle Book feature film, the BBC has repackaged their nature documentaries for home video as The Real Jungle Book Animals.

The eponymous documentary, advertised on the package as a journey into the heart of Rudyard Kipling's wild India, is actually the first episode of the 1997 series Land of the Tiger (and released as Wild India). This episode introduces the six-part series and focuses itself on the regions of Kanha National Park. This park and its denizens inspired Kipling's stories, as series host and Indian naturalist Valmik Thapar informs us. The trials of a mother tigress is the main plot, but time is taken to show the lives of sloth bears (on which Baloo is based), leopards (the black variety being Bagheera's inspiration), langur monkeys, dholes, jackals, and wolves, cobras, peacocks, elephants, and spotted deer. Not only does it show the ecology of these beautiful creatures, but the unique and reverent relationship Indian people have forged with them.

The act of repackaging an entirely different documentary as a The Real Jungle Book Animals is a bit of a bait-and-switch, but it's not an unpleasant one. It is still a fascinating episode. Given that Land of the Tiger has never been released in its entirety on digital home video platforms, they could have done well to put all six episodes on the disk. Its only home video release has been on VHS, and they clearly used the same masters for this copy.

For a faux-Kipling documentary, one might have hoped they would find another suitable bonus feature... Say, a biography of Kipling or some such thing. The BBC is, in fact, currently airing a documentary called Kipling's Indian Adventure, presumably to tie-in with the film. Not so with this release, unfortunately. The bonus is another documentary advertised as "Himalayas: Home of the Brown Bear" but which is, in fact, the "Tibet" episode of BBC's Wild China series.

While an odd choice for a disk entitled The Real Jungle Book Animals, this exploration of the Tibetan plateau, its wildlife, and the spirituality of the indomitable Tibetan people unintentionally fills in the background to Animal Kingdom's Expedition Everest attraction. The disk ends up being a double-whammy of unofficial Disney documentaries. For those piqued by the new Jungle Book remake and the best ride at Animal Kingdom, The Real Jungle Book Animals is worth picking up at an affordable price.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Walt's Era - Part 1: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

We all know the story. Walt Disney cut his teeth on animation back in 1921 in Kansas City, Missouri, making extremely crude animations that modernized fairy tales like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. With some extra cash, he was able to put together a short blending animation with live action in 1923, titled Alice's Wonderland, and went scouting around Hollywood. Partnering with his brother Roy, more of these "Alice" shorts were produced until the Walt Disney Studios were built at 2719 Hyperion Ave. in 1926. After the Alice shorts ran their course, Disney made a series of cartoons with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. This contract lasted about a year and a half before the character was scooped from beneath him by Universal Studios, who technically were the rightful copyright holders. This setback forced Disney to start over again in 1928 with a new character co-created by longtime friend and coworker Ub Iwerks. That character went on to make his fortune.

The original Disney studio at 2719 Hyperion.
The first official Mickey cartoon, Steamboat Willie, was also Disney's first attempt at synchronized sound. The combination of a sassy but lovable everymouse with music and sound effects was a hit, and within a decade Disney went from simple black-and-white barnyard cartoons to Hollywood's first feature-length, full-colour, animated film.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book - Part 1: Mowgli's Brothers

Published in 1894 as a series of moralizing fairy tales for his daughter, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book is a classic of adventure literature. For those of us raised on Disney's cartoon version - now re-adapted as an ostensibly live-action film, though that term has lost all meaning in the era of CGI - it can be surprising to learn that Mowgli's exploits comprise a relatively small amount of the book. In fact, it is drawn from only two chapters. Absent are the white fur seal Kotick, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the mongoose, and Akela the proud wolf whose name was officially lent to the leaders of Cub Scout packs.

Kipling, the great poet of the British Empire and jingoist of British Imperialism, was born and mostly raised in India. After his family moved back to England for a spell, he returned to India for employment as a newspaperman. It was during this time that he picked up material for his many books, including The Jungle Book, Kim, and Just-So Stories. His enthusiasms for the British Empire led to his insurmountable popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and his being nearly forgotten in the late 20th century onwards.

Much like Mark Twain's capacity to capture the spirit of the American South fore and aft of the Civil War, Kipling spoke for the British Empire. And like Twain, Kipling was an expert at the turn of a phrase. They were alike wordsmiths with a sensitive understanding of their respective cultures and overlapping times. Unlike Twain, however, Kipling did not have the same biting satirical mind. As George Orwell said of him, "anyone who starts out with a pessimistic, reactionary view of life tends to be justified by events..." It is easy to sit back and criticize, even if that takes its emotional toll. Kipling, on the other hand,
was a Conservative, a thing that does not exist nowadays. Those who now call themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists. He identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, 'In such and such circumstances, what would you do?', whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions... Kipling sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like. 
The Jungle Book, however, is not one of these great hymns to the British ruling class. Presented here is the first chapter (and a song) in which Mowgli appears. The second chapter will come in two weeks - just after the film premieres - but if you're particularly keen, the complete book can be found at Project Gutenberg

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Walt's Era - Introduction

Starting today, we will be running a new series on Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy. This fairly monumental project will be to watch as many of the theatrical films produced during "Walt's Era" as practicable, in order. It's a project we've been wanting to do for a long time, as our collection of those films has grown exponentially with a Disney Movie Club membership. Now we're finally taking the plunge!

For the format of this project, we owe a debt to FoxxFur of Passport to Dreams Old and New, who did a similar project with the films made in the decade immediately after Walt Disney's untimely passing. On the second Saturday of every month, we will be looking at another handful of films in their sequence of release, reviewing each film and drawing observations from how Disney's cinematic art progresses over time. This will include both feature films (films over 40 minutes) and theatrical shorts (films under 40 minutes) but not the Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Silly Symphony or other such cartoons that were often packaged with and preceded the films. We will, however, be putting the films in their historical context against those cartoons and what Disney was doing on TV and in theme parks at those times. I'll also include some historical data about the films themselves, letting historical box office returns and that sort of thing factor into my reviews.

Our journey will take us through a 30-year period from 1937's release of Disney's first theatrical film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to 1967's The Jungle Book, the last film which bore the direct influence of Walt Disney. Unfortunately there are a handful of films that we are forced to bypass because they are simply not available, like the People and Places series that ought to have been released alongside the True-Life Adventures in the Legacy Collection. There might even be a small number I'll deliberately skip, since we must face facts that not everything made by Walt Disney was pure gold. Nor can I promise to have something insightful to say about everything... I'm already pretty sure that my review of The Fighting Prince of Donegal will be something to the effect of "Like many films released in 1966, this film was also released in 1966."

I do hope that I may be able to say something interesting some of the time though, and that the exercise of watching them in order will open up some new ways of looking. I heartily invite you to watch along with me and share your own thoughts in the comments. Our series will begin next Saturday with, of course, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Friday, 1 April 2016

Disney Announces "Main Street USA" Movie

BURBANK - In a quiet press release this morning, chairman Alan Horn announced that Walt Disney Studios will begin production on a live-action feature film based on Main Street USA.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson will star as Gart Williams, a modern executive who finds himself lost in the fast-paced world of today. Drowsing on his daily commute home, he catches a fleeting glimpse of an idyllic town where the streets are still lit by gas, ladies sport great feathered hats, and the horseless carriage is the newest thing. Was it only a dream, or something more? What is "Main Street USA"?

Main Street USA will continue the tradition of feature films based on Disney theme park attractions, including the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Tomorrowland, The Country Bears, Tim Burton's Dumbo the Flying Elephant, and Guillermo del Toro's hypothetical Haunted Mansion movie. Brad Bird has been signed on to direct this family action-adventure comedy romance.

"We might as well give him another chance," said Alan Horn. "Besides, we've been kind of doing a volume business lately." Bird was quoted as saying "Yeah, I guess I have to do it." He added "I've got a great sequence planned with Abraham Lincoln riding a Tyrannosaurus, so that'll be cool. Hopefully they don't cut the budget halfway through."

When asked about Disney's marketing strategy for Main Street USA, Horn stated "Well, we don't really know who we make our movies for. I figure we'll just kind of half-ass some advertising that doesn't really tell anybody what it's about or make them want to see it. Maybe we'll do one of those viral campaigns that the kids these days are so into, but only make it accessible to a small group of Disneyland passholders. Disney specializes in doing the impossible, like making a $250 million film and not promoting it."

Disney fans have begun buzzing about possible changes to Main Street USA if the movie proves successful. The website MiceChap has already speculated wildly at a replacement for The Walt Disney Story Featuring Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln And The Disney Gallery, immediately followed by complaints that it will not be an E-ticket simulator ride and that Universal Studios could do it better.