Long available in crummy Public Domain editions taken from beat-up prints, or passed over for Disney’s happy animated version from ‘67 (Walt’s last hurrah), this recent Criterion restoration is something of a revelation. First off, it’s flat out gorgeous! The TechniColor is as vivid as a museum lithograph, with animal footage of startling color density & sharpness. Second, where Disney covered Mowgli’s jungle education; here, that’s skipped to focus on Mowgli’s return to civilization after a brief prologue shows him getting lost as a child. At 18, Sabu is about as definitive a Mowgli as you could wish for. (In the ‘94 remake, Jason Scott Lee was nearing 30.) Slight, but well-built, Sabu’s jungle-boy is as naturally graceful as his animal friends. And wonderfully unself-conscious when speaking to them. But what really makes this work, assuming you can swallow its otherwise all-Caucasian cast*, is in how comfortably it keeps one foot in reality and the other foot in storybook land. Of course, Kipling had something to do with that, but TechniColor plays a large role, too. The heightened hues lend themselves to painterly textures and helps the clever matte drawings & trick shots do their part in the lush landscape. (Only the silly stuffed snakes disappoint though they might work dubbed into parseltongue.) Credit Vincent Korda’s art design & cinematographer Lee Garmes’ matchless matching of studio work with W. Howard Greene’s location footage, too. Scripter Laurence Stallings gets into structural troubles with a story that has two last acts, but he never goes soft & cute, and doesn’t turn away from grim doings. Composer Miklos Rosza, now a regular on the Korda team, with producer Alexander, designer Vincent & helmer Zoltan, are all at their outstanding best here. And the film, far less celebrated than it’s cousin, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD/’40, now seems the better project.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Lots of blue eyes in this Indian village! And none bluer than Rosemary DeCamp as Mowgli’s mom. Her next role also had her playing mother, but swapped out Sabu for James Cagney’s George M. Cohan in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY! Hey, works for me.
DOUBLE-BILL: While Disney’s JUNGLE BOOK is the obvious pick, why not try another story about a man of the wild who tries to live in the city, Akira Kurosawa’s DERSU UZALA/’75.