The Jungle Book

(Wolfgang Reitherman, USA, 1967)


Playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht once spent many years theorising what he called the defamiliarisation effect – how to make something very familiar and taken for granted seem suddenly strange and questionable.

Brecht had no idea that the most defamiliarising experience of our century would turn out to be re-watching Walt Disney's supposedly timeless animated features only a few decades after their initial production.

Take The Jungle Book, that redoubtable piece of family entertainment about a jungle boy who grows up among animals and eventually finds his way into human community. Isn't it just a wee bit strange that, in this fantasy based on Rudyard Kipling's stories, the native animals of India speak in the immaculate accents of their British colonisers? Politics may have been the last thing on Walt's mind, but being accepted as a serious middlebrow artist obsessed him – and he figured that those damn British accents were his best ticket.

The other aspect of The Jungle Book which is mightily disconcerting to a modern viewer is its line of hopefully hip cultural references – with the cover blurb hyping it as "Disney's coolest classic". Every few scenes there is a vague, non-specific gesture towards be-bop, jive talk, jazz ... and just when you've figured that it was probably made sometime in the '40s, there is a Beatles moptop joke, and you realise with a jolt that this was the daggiest and resolutely uncoolest family movie of 1967.

What on earth do kids make of this alien stuff today?

© Adrian Martin November 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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