Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Jungle Book Smarts

I agree with Michael Sporn that The Jungle Book is not one of the better Disney movies. It reminds me of Alice in Wonderland in that they were adapting stories that weren't truly adaptable, and so the movie became a series of vignettes with very little coherence as a whole. But whereas in Alice the vignettes are truly brilliantly animated and designed, the Xeroxed, corner-cutting look of The Jungle Book doesn't hold my attention. (The Xerox process combined with the digital monkeying of the "restored" DVD version makes it look like somebody went over the whole film with a giant eraser.)

I don't know if I can agree with him about voice acting, though:


The singers killed it. By that I mean, the character of Baloo became more Phil Harris and less Baloo the bear. Louie Prima’s King Louie was more Louis Prima than anything you’d find in the African setting. George Sanders was more of an actor than a personality, and he offered Shere Khan a character that Milt Kahl was able to build on. Sterling Holloway as Kaa was also more an actor than a personality, and he played what was asked of him. Ollie Johston was able to develop on it.

Animated features try to continue in the same vein. Voices like Robin Williams or David Spade or Eva Gabor are not going to make the animated character better. It’d be more interesting to have unknown voices that are well cast. Peter Pan, Snow White, Bambi and Cinderella. Lady & The Tramp, Alice, Pinocchio are all brilliantly cast features.


Now, it's true that many animated features go overboard with celebrity stunt casting. But I don't think that's what happened in Jungle Book, even if it did have more big-name actors than Disney's other features. All the main actors except Louis Prima are character actors, supporting players, who happened to have really distinctive voices. The casting of Phil Harris, a popular radio personality, is no different than the popular radio personalities Ed Wynn and Jerry Colonna in Alice; George Sanders may have ben better-known than Hans Conreid (Captain Hook), but Hans Conreid was stil a guy who, at the time, was better-known as an onscreen character actor than a voice actor. And when you go into later actors -- well, Robin Williams, Eva Gabor and David Spade wer all well-cast, good choices in my opinion. As are many other people who have done animation voice acting without a lot of background in voice acting.

Celebrity casting is bad when the actor becomes more important than the character, so that the animators are just animating to the actor's personality rather than finding the character. This happens: it happened when Disney re-used Phil Harris in two other movies and just recycled his Baloo character, and it happens a lot with today's non-Pixar animated movies. But there is often a good reason for casting a celebrity, because these are often people who become famous because they're good actors, or have distinctive voices. And you need good actors with distinctive voices in an animated film.

I realize and understand the objections to famous actors taking work away from full-time voice actors. But the other side of this is that many animated features require a different kind of voice acting from the kind that professional voice actors provide. A lot of cartoon voice acting is a little exaggerated and broad, because that's what's required for television and short cartoons. But to sustain that kind of acting over a whole movie can become difficult, especially when the movie has a lot of serious moments. So the ideal thing is often to find an actor with a really good voice who can use his or her own voice, or something close to it, and sound "natural" in a way that traditional cartoon voice acting is not. There's a reason why Disney usually saved the June Foray, Bill Thompson type of actors for smaller or more comic roles ("Squaw no dance! Squaw get-um firewood!") and gave the lead roles to people who might be fairly well-known but weren't necessarily animation pros (like Cliff Edwards, Walter Catlett, and other people that the audience sort of knew at the time).

16 comments:

Anthony Strand said...

I think The Jungle Book is pretty great, but I can see where others would disagree. I also think Robin Hood is pretty great, so take that for whatever it's worth.

Robin Hood, I think, provides the perfect example of what you're saying about celebrity voice casting. Peter Ustinov was a huge star, of course, but he's terrific as Prince John. Not that Paul Frees or whoever wouldn't have been, but Ustinov's unique voice and delivery make the character extremely memorable.

Michael Sporn said...

I didn't so much dislike Phil Harris' voice as I did the dependence by the Disney animators on using Phil Harris' screen personality as a short cut to a character for the animation. It worked, but it was lazy. Even lazier was using that voice in the next two features, as you stated.

This is a bit like Alfred Hitchcock's use of Cary Grant or James Stewart in the mid-50's movies. He was able to cut to the quick, using a personality that the audience would already know and love. However, once the film started Hitchcock used that personality to the film's needs.

The Disney animators used the personality of Harris, but did nothing with it except to dance and frolic. Not only that but they didn't even cast the voice for the story they were adapting. They went against the grain and delicacy of Kipling and killed the book.

Russell H said...

Mr. Sporn hits it on the head. I was nine when JUNGLE BOOK opened. I was a huge fan of the Kipling stories and had been very excited about this film, and ended up terribly disappointed: these characters were either clowns, or totally wrong (in the stories, Kaa is one of Mowgi's best friends). The whole thing was incredibly disillusioning; like most kids of that era, I'd bought into the whole idea that "the Disney version" was the ideal, but after this I knew I couldn't trust them any more.

I only wish Chuck Jones had been able to do more Kipling adaptations.

Mr. Semaj said...

They almost re-used Phil Harris again in The Fox and the Hound.

Andrew said...

For the record, Kaa was hardly one of Mowgli's best friends, but neither was he an out and out enemy. In the original Kipling, Kaa is a figure who the others are wary of but respect enough to call in when Mowgli needs rescuing from the monkeys. It's Kaa who succeeds in mesmerizing the monkeys, but nearly succeeds in doing the same to Baloo and Bagheera. Like most of the characters, he's more complex and "grey" in the book. But then, Jungle Book, moreso perhaps than any Disney feature based on literature (not counting later things like Hunchback of Notre Dame) is best enjoyed if one doesn't think of it as an adaptation; Walt famously said to ignore the book.

That said, I'd like to see a good, faithful adaptation (Chuck Jones' specials are close, but the familiar visual style tends to drown the story for me, with the possible exception of "Rikki-Tiki-Tavi.")

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