Talking animals run deep in the storytelling traditions of people around the world. What they have to say wants to remind us of our kinship with the lowliest creatures, from wise cracking insects to the largest of the thunder lizards that once roamed the Earth. Our conversation with the animals has come along way since the earliest times. The British have a strange penchant for talking animal literature and I think it derives from their collective self-image as the pinnacle of Civilization. As the French and the Germans also discovered, there seems to be great pressure put on the citizens of a culture that considers itself superior to all others. It appears that one method of release from this pressure is to dwell imaginatively in the Dreamtime, to “talk to the animals,” as Dr. Dolittle was known to do. It has an equalizing effect.

There are Disney versions of such children’s classics as Winnie the Pooh (1977) and Wind in the Willows (The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad – 1950).  When it comes to quality of dialogue, however, there is no better movie rendition of Wind in the Willows than the 1995 version made for British TV (available on IMDb) – be sure it is the one narrated by Vanessa Redgrave.

Of the animated films made by Walt Disney before his death in 1966, there is a division between traditional fairy tales, short on talking creatures, and more contemporary tales in which can be found the legendary Jiminy Cricket, as well as Dumbo’s saintly elephant mom, Bambi’s family and friends, the terribly underrated Bongo the Bear (from a book by Sinclair Lewis!), the White Rabbit and The Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, Merlin’s opinionated owl in The Sword in the Stone, a very well-read serpent in The Reluctant Dragon (also by the author of The Wind in the Willows), and finally, the Disney film that comes closest to the heart of the Dreamtime would have to be The Lion King (1994), discussed under Africa: Serengeti Migrations.

The Disney version of Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1967) is a kind of happy travesty.  But the scene in which Louis Prima sings the role of the Orangutan king who yearns to be human (“I Wanna Be Like You-hoo-hoo”) is worth the price. This was Walt Disney’s last animated film. He died in the year before its release. If, however, you want a movie experience that is a little closer to the original, get Jungle Book (1942), starring young Sabu. This is the story of Mowgli, who was reared by caring wolves and enjoyed strong friendships among the animals of the jungle. It is a talking animal classic with some memorable voices.

Jungle Book  (1942)

A remarkably colorful film for its time, this adventure tale is based loosely on the book by Rudyard Kiplng. It stars a young Indian actor named Sabu Dastagir, who was discovered by Hollywood working in a stable in his native country. The story is framed by an old man named Buldeo recounting events that happened long ago in his village. He begins with a long prolog listing the animals that live in the nearby jungle. The theme for this story, clearly established by old Buldeo, has to do with living close to Nature. Little Mowgli wanders from his village at the time that his father is killed by the tiger, Shere Khan. Raised by wolves in the jungle, he grows into a fine looking young man. It is the wolves that give him his name. When he is restored to his home, he struggles to learn the ways of the human world. He befriends a girl named Mahala and the two of them discover a secret palace in the jungle with a chamber full of treasure. Evil men in the village try to force the secret out of the children. They have been warned by a wise old cobra that touching the treasure spells doom. Buldeo is the father of Mahala and the most greedy of the village men. Mowgli fights and kills the tiger, Shere Khan, who had killed his father. Very much like the young Tarzan in Africa, Mowgli is on speaking terms with the animals. When Buldeo’s plans are foiled, he takes revenge by setting the jungle on fire. The blaze is spectacular. Mowgli enlists the help of his friends the elephants to save the villagers. When they ask him to come dowriver with them to a new life, he decides to stay in the jungle and help the animals.

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