Sunday, January 18, 2015

RUDYARD KIPLING'S "THE JUNGLE BOOK" (1994)

CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED, BUT INITIALLY A BOX OFFICE FAILURE, "THE JUNGLE BOOK" BECOMES A HOME VIDEO HIT BIG ENOUGH TO ALTER THE INDUSTRY 



VAULTED TREASURES:
HARD TO FIND FILMS
WORTH SEEKING OUT

     Streaming is wonderful, but many cinematic gems (for various reasons) have yet to make the leap to NetFlix, Hulu, Blu-ray or even DVD. In fact some have never been released in ANY home video format. And many which DID have long since gone out of print and become high priced collectibles. For this reason, in this age of streaming, we not only saved those DVDs, but old school VHS tapes / players and DVD burner; and love to return "to the vaults" to relive old faves.

     Hard to believe it's been 20 years since RUDYARD KIPLING'S "THE JUNGLE BOOK" - the Disney released pulp adventure-style, live action revisionist take on author Rudyard Kipling's beloved "Mowgli" stories. Also hard to believe the film's 2002 DVD release was it's only ever DVD issue, and that it's been out of print since, making it a "hard to obtain" title now fetching prices upwards to $200 on Amazon.com and other seller outlets.

      Debuting Christmas day 1994, RUDYARD KIPLING'S "THE JUNGLE BOOK" was a rip roaring old school INDIANA JONES-like "boy's own" adventure which wowed critics (it still holds an impressive aggregate 92% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but was initially considered a box-office disappointment for the studio at the time riding high on the success of it's released-earlier-in-the-year super smash THE LION KING. At a time however when home video, in the form of "sell through" titles, and when the ubiquitous VHS rental parlor on every other street corner was becoming THE primary filmic delivery choice for many families, THE JUNGLE BOOK would eventually become a hit and, perhaps most importantly (at least as far as Hollywood bookkeeping is concerned) one of the first features to cause a film finance paradigm shift wherein a movie's later home video release would no longer be considered "ancillary" revenue, but a major part of it's overall worldwide box office take, and thus would, beforehand, be factored into it's initial budgeting structure.

     And, oh yes, THE JUNGLE BOOK would also make an "A" list star out of a young up-and-coming director named Stephen Sommers, who'd forever become known (some say "for the better"; others say "for worse") as the king of the revisionist / "rebooted" classic yarn.


     Born in Bombay, India, Nobel Prize winning author, Rudyard Kipling, spent the first six years of his life there, then later as a young adult returned to work in the beloved nation as assistant editor of the newspaper "The Civil & Military Gazette". The author of numerous high adventure stories and poems (among them THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and GUNGA DIN), THE JUNGLE BOOK would emerge as his most popular work. Published as a collection in 1894, it was written (most don't realize) not in India, but whilst Kipling resided in Vermont, U.S.A., and written as a gift for his daughter Josephine, who'd pass away at the age of six a few short years later.

     Consisting of seven stories - each followed by a clever poem thematically linked to that story, three of the tales concerned the feral child Mowgli: raised by wolves, brother to all jungle animals (including the sloth bear "Baloo" and panther "Bagheera"); primary prey of the fearsome tiger "Shere Khan"; and who was first introduced one year prior in Kipling's stand-alone short story "In The Rukh" - wherein as an adult Mowgli is asked by a British forestry Ranger to join him because of his near superhuman ability to hunt and track, and the Ranger later discovers Mowgli's talents are born of the fact that as a lost child he was raised in the jungle by a wolfpack. Kipling published another collection of stories in 1895 under the title THE SECOND JUNGLE BOOK - this time with eight stories (and attendant poems); and five of which featured Mowgli as the central protagonist.  Oh, and take note English Lit fans - Edgar Rice Burroughs would borrow Kipling's "raised by animals" narrative hook in the creation of his own soon-to-be classic "feral child" story, TARZAN OF THE APES in 1912.

Rudyard Kipling (1865 - 1936)

     The first filmic adaptation of THE JUNGLE BOOK was 1942's Technicolor adventure courtesy of the Korda Brothers, Zoltan & Alexander (THE FOUR FEATHERS, SAHARA). Featuring a performance by beloved India born actor Sabu (THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, ARABIAN NIGHTS) as Mowgli, it received four Academy Award nominations, including one for it's energetic and colorful musical score by the legendary Miklos Rozsa (BEN-HUR, THIEF OF BAGDAD). Other versions of Kipling's JUNGLE BOOK stories would appear over the next 50-odd years, with the best of the lot arguably being Chuck Jones (Bugs Bunny / HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS)'s 1975 animated TV special RIKKI-TIKKI-TAVI, which featured the voices of Orson Welles and June Foray. The most popularly remembered however is surely Walt Disney's swinging (pun entirely intended) 1967 animated adventure / musical directed by Wolfgang Reitherman (Disney's SLEEPING BEAUTY, 101 DALMATIONS, THE ARISTOCATS, THE RESCUERS), and featuring a "murderer's row" cast of vocal talents including the lovable Phil Harris as "Baloo", Jazz singer Louis Prima as monkey leader - the orangutan "King Louie", Sabastian Cabot as "Bagheera", and the suave and debonair George Saunders (REBECCA, ALL ABOUT EVE, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR) as the villainous "Shere Khan".


     In the late 1980s, inspired by a National Geographic nature special, independent producer Raju Patel (BACHELOR PARTY), who was born in Kenya but forever in love with the nation of his family's ancestry - India, commissioned a new script adaptation of Mowgli's adventures (the rights to which many years prior had passed into the public domain) by Ronald Yanover & Mark Geldman - the writing duo best known to genre fans for the cult favorite CYBORG 2. Yes, THAT one, with young Angelina Jolie as a sexy robot programmed by an industrialist to seduce her way into a rival corporation's business headquarters, then to self-destruct - thus wiping out the competition!!!

     With finished script (clocking in at a mammoth 175 pages, but nicely stringing together elements of Kipling's episodic tales into a smooth, linear, and single "through line" / INDIANA JONES-style adventure - romance), Patel and producing partner Mark Damon (DAS BOOT, THE NEVERENDING STORY, THE LOST BOYS) brought it to then Disney studio head Michael Eisner (who'd just had a hit with the studio's redo of THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY) in the hope that the studio, which had given the world the classic animated JUNGLE BOOK, would wish to "coat tail" the new rendition on both that earlier film's "brand name recognition" as well as on the fact that the 100th Anniversary, celebrating the publication of Kipling's original classic, was fast approaching. Eisner agreed, set a film a budget of $30 million, then brought in veteran producer Edward S. Feldman (SAVE THE TIGER, WITNESS, GREEN CARD) to spearhead the project.


      With a limited budget, Disney stuck to it's then philosophy of attaching up-and-coming talent to it's projects over high priced (so-called) "A"-lister personnel. And impressed with his student film PERFECT ALIBI, his $800,000 independent teen racer thriller, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, and recent revisionist (but still faithful to Mark Twain's original) direction of Disney's own THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN, Eisner and Feldman brought aboard the just-turned-30-years-old Stephen Sommers to helm THE JUNGLE BOOK. An accomplished screenwriter (he'd just finished a witty and energetic thriller script at Touchstone called TENTACLE, which years later he'd direct as the action / horror / comedy DEEP RISING), Sommers proceeded to trim down then augment Yanover and Geldman's 175 page draft. And his new draft proved impressive enough to attract the attention and ultimate involvement of actors Jason Scott Lee (of DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY) as Mowgli, JURASSIC PARK's Sam Neill as Col. Brydon; Lena Heady (THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, 300, GAME OF THRONES) as his daughter (and Mowgli's love interest) Katherine "Kitty" Brydon; THE PRINCESS BRIDE's Cary Elwes as the villainous Capt. Boone; and (in a role written specifically for him by Sommers) John Cleese as Dr. Julius Plumford.


     WIZARD OF OZ-like (where the Oz characters have real world Kansas counterparts), Sommers' new script would also make many of THE JUNGLE BOOK's supporting-role human characters the personality equivalents of Mowgli's animal associates in Kipling's original tales. As such Dr. Plumford becomes a thinly veiled human version of "Baloo", Capt. Boone the equivalent of the sly and sneaky serpent "Kaa", Col. Brydon the human rendition of "order and law" proponent - the troop leader elephant "Col. Hahti"; and even Mowgli himself the "coin flip side" equal to "Shere Khan".

     Principle photography on THE JUNGLE BOOK took place between March - June, 1994 on locations as varied as Mehboob Studios in Bombay, India (where, because of a lack of air conditioning, temperatures at times rose to 137 degrees), to the jungles of Jodhpur. Seeking a dreamlike lush green "jungle of one's childhood fantasies", Sommers and his production team augmented the Jodhpur footage (where, because of the dry time of year, much of the vegetation was turning brown) with extra footage shoots back in the U.S. in the forests and swamps of both Tennessee and South Carolina. Utilizing the largest live action "cast of animals" (actual tigers, bears, primates, panthers and more) since 20th Century Fox's DOCTOR DOOLITTLE (1967), for safety's sake, when filming the animals (under their trainer's supervision), all non-essential cast and crew were banned from the U.S. studios and locations until the animals were once again safely and securely removed. As Sommers later commented, "Most people think 'trained animal' means that they'll do everything you instruct them too; when it actually only means they MAYBE won't attack you".


     Under it's various studio banners at the time (incl. Disney, Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures) Disney released a staggering total of 29 films in 1994. And the fact that they not only gave RUDYARD KIPLING'S "THE JUNGLE BOOK" (the author's name since added to the title so audiences wouldn't think this simply a remake of the 1967 animated classic) a massive advertising push, but chose to award it the coveted Christmas Day release slot, evidenced a great deal of faith by the company in the film's box office potential. That faith was (at least partially) justified. With a rousing and romantic score by the late great Basil Poledouris (CONAN THE BARBARIAN, LONESOME DOVE, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER), stunning cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia (AT CLOSE RANGE, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, A FAR OFF PLACE), and gorgeously detailed Oscar worthy costumes by John Mollo (ALIEN, GANDHI, GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN), RUDYARD KIPLING'S "THE JUNGLE BOOK" had it's premiere in New York City on December 23rd, then opened two days later to near unanimous critical accolades - even from purists like Roger Ebert who took issue with the film's at times narrative departure from Kipling's original characters and plots.

     Ebert gave the film three out four stars, citing that, while it was "... an action thriller / INDIANA JONES clone that Kipling would have viewed with astonishment" he felt it was well made and enjoyable, ... though he also believed some of it's scenes were unsuitable for smaller children. Variety called it "An encyclopedia of wonders", and The Washington Post hailed it as "... A bully (in the most positive-declarative Teddy Roosevelt sense) family picture".


      Nevertheless surrounded by my more adult-oriented December 1994 releases such as DISCLOSURE, DROP ZONE, NELL and LEGENDS OF THE FALL, THE JUNGLE BOOK failed to catch with family audiences. This was particularly puzzling as the only other real theatrical demographic competition at the time came from Columbia's remake of LITTLE WOMEN (it geared primarily towards early teenaged female audiences) and the not-so-well regarded RICHIE RICH - both films opening two days before THE JUNGLE BOOK. As stated earlier, THE JUNGLE BOOK later proved a hit when simultaneously released in 1995 as a full screen pan-and-scan VHS (remember those huge plastic "clam shell" cases?) and as a widescreen laserdisc. It's success as a home video VHS title (this in the days before 1996's TWISTER became the first major studio DVD release) would help cause studios, talent agents and more, to from henceforth factor potential home viewership revenue (which at the time also included cable TV airings) into a film's financial plan overview.

     Which is to say, they'd now begin considering BEFOREHAND the projected profits from said upcoming home video sales / rentals, et al; and figure those estimates into the planning, budgeting (and salary bargaining) of a film and price required to secure that film's talent in front of and behind the lens. In other words, as THE JUNGLE BOOK's home video success was now proving that the final pie size of a film's profits was increasing, all of said film's participants now wanted a larger slice of that pie BEFORE signing on the dotted line as a "pie ingredient".

Director Stephen Sommers

     The ultimate success of RUDYARD KIPLING'S "THE JUNGLE BOOK" as a film would also allow Stephen Sommers to realize his long desired revisionist INDIANA JONES / JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS-like spin on one of his favorite childhood films - THE MUMMY. After Universal Studios' desired reboot shifted hands from such acclaimed writer / film makers as Clive Barker to George Romero to Joe Dante, on the basis of THE JUNGLE BOOK, Sommers was able to submit his detailed 18 page treatment for his take on THE MUMMY to the Universal brass. And it was met with such a positive response, the studio not only greenlighted his vision, but upped the film's original $18 million budget to $80 million. Re-imagined from a low budget thriller to potential tentpole franchise, THE MUMMY - opening on May 7th, 1999, and starring Brendan Fraser, grossed over $400 million, becoming one of the year's biggest hits. Sommers would solidify this newfound industry position / reputation as "king of the classic reboot properties" with the follow up successes (financial if not critical) of THE MUMMY RETURNS (2001), VAN HELSING (2004) and G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA (2009).


     The eventual success of Sommers' original 1994 THE JUNGLE BOOK would also inspire that film's original producers, Raju Patel and Mark Damon, to film 1997's non-Disney-released THE SECOND JUNGLE BOOK: MOWGLI AND BALOO. And it would also encourage Disney to produce it's own 1998 direct-to-video live action THE JUNGLE BOOK: MOWGLI'S STORY. Finally bowing to the wishes of those who first saw and fell in love with the 1994 film as children (and who now chomped at the bit to share it with THEIR children), Disney very recently released RUDYARD KIPLING'S "THE JUNGLE BOOK" for digital streaming rental and purchase download, though the streaming version contains none of the DVD's bonus extras such as film maker audio commentary, the behind the scenes documentary, and other features.


     The enduring popularity and charm of Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli adventures recently ignited a major studio competition between two currently-in-the-works combo live action / CGI big screen epics. On the one side is Disney's newest take on THE JUNGLE BOOK - directed by IRON MAN's Jon Favreau; and featuring the voice talents of Bill Murray as "Baloo", Idris Elba as "Shere Khan", Ben Kingsley as "Bagheera", Christopher Walken as "King Louie", and Scarlett Johansson as "Kaa". And on the other is Warner Bros.'s big budget live action redo - formerly under the helm of Ron Howard and now directed by KING KONG / LORD OF THE RING's actor / 2nd Unit director Andy Serkis. This version to star the voices of SHERLOCK's Benedict Cumberbatch as "Shere Khan", THE DARK KNIGHT's Christian Bale as "Bagheera", Cate Blanchett as "Kaa", and SKYFALL's Naomi Harris as "Raksha".

     With Marvel and D.C. comic renditions of the author's beloved Mowgli stories, a Russian animated version, video games, two upcoming big budget re-dos and more, one wonders if the late Roger Ebert could have ever imagined the prophetic nature of his words when he referred to Disney and Stephen Sommers' 1994 "vaulted gem", RUDYARD KIPLING'S "THE JUNGLE BOOK", as something "... Kipling would have viewed with astonishment". We think not.

Though we DO think he would have viewed them with a great deal of pride and pleasure.





"This is the hour of pride and power, 
 Talon and tush and claw.
 Oh, hear the call!--Good hunting all,

 (to them) that keep the Jungle Law!"


                                                      CEJ



Postings of earlier installments of VAULTED TREASURES available to read @ https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-GullCottageSandlot/129683480458380?ref=hl 




 
Copyright © 2015 Craig Ellis Jamison. All rights reserved.
 

2 comments:

  1. Just to let you know that the DVD was released in Thailand (my base) in 2009 and i have some original copies in my eBay store. No extras on the DVD and although Region Free it comes in the PAL format so USA buyers may need to view on a laptop/pc.
    http://www.ebay.com/itm/THE-JUNGLE-BOOK-DVD-PAL-Color-Jason-Scott-Lee-John-Cleese-Disney-Adventure-/281770727919?ssPageName=STRK:MESE:IT

    ReplyDelete
  2. Just to let you know that the DVD was released in Thailand (my base) in 2009 and i have some original copies in my eBay store. No extras on the DVD and although Region Free it comes in the PAL format so USA buyers may need to view on a laptop/pc.
    http://www.ebay.com/itm/THE-JUNGLE-BOOK-DVD-PAL-Color-Jason-Scott-Lee-John-Cleese-Disney-Adventure-/281770727919?ssPageName=STRK:MESE:IT

    ReplyDelete