Walt Disney was overseeing Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book to its 1967 release when he died. Given his cinematic legacy of providing sexless yet fiercely heteronormative parables to multiple generations of mousey parents (some of whom, by this point, had been raised by his earlier primers), it’s not surprising that he lost the will to live after allowing his animators to breathe in the hot air of Jungle fever. One could easily picture him dropping by to view some of the rushes and being shown the scene where the loose-limbed 10-year-old nudist boy Mowgli first meets Baloo, the biggest gay, err, I mean gray bear in the jungle. When Bagheera the panther informs Mowgli’s new partner in tickling and riding bearback that he intends to take the orphan boy who was raised by wolves back to “Man Village,” and when Baloo responds, “Man Village? They’ll ruin him. They’ll turn him into a man,” you can still faintly hear the old studio mogul’s soul recoiling. And when one considers that Cub Scout pack leaders go by the names of characters in the film, you can sense his erection shriveling from beyond the grave.
Director Wolfgang Reitherman (one of the trio who brought Disney into the era of camp with 101 Dalmations’ Cruella De Vil) and his team of freewheeling animators took a great deal of license with Kipling’s pint-sized morality tales in order to strip the Disney ethos down to its “Bare Necessities,” meaning to cut females out of the picture almost entirely, at least until Mowgli has been readily passed from one zoological clan to the next and been given plenty of time to relish the thought of remaining in the jungle for the rest of his life, doing as the bears do and inspiring slap-happy monkeys to howl “I Wan’na Be Like You.” When compared to the gym-bunny immobility of Disney’s much-later Tarzan, Reitherman’s physical, gliding depiction of Mowgli the man-cub resembles jungle jailbait (rendered all the more sick when one discovers the character was voiced by the director’s son, who himself wanted so much to remain in the jungle that his adult career has been spent as a nature photographer), which explains Baloo’s encroaching sense of guilt for ever teaching the boy the tricks of the bear trade.
The guilt grows as the processional of eager beavers, predatory pythons, and old queen tigers (voiced, appropriately, by Addison DeWitt himself, George Sanders) pounce like piranhas upon a swimming calf, and the double entendres know no bounds (even the vultures jump into the pan-species gang bang, singing, “We’ve never met an animal we didn’t like”), but you gotta give the animators credit where credit’s due: rarely has a Disney movie before or since seemed as genuinely carefree. With the exception of The Emperor’s New Groove, The Jungle Book may be Disney’s greatest Mouse House party, at least up until the moment Mowgli reaches the perimeter of the Man Village, spies on a sad little girl mournfully warbling, “I must go to fetch the water, I must go to fetch the water, I must go to fetch the water till the day that I’m grown” and immediately grabs her jugs to bear her burden. The literally last-minute stab at domestic foreplay is simply unbelievable, but Baloo’s lip-licking post-mortem—“I still think he’d a made one swell bear”—is what sticks.