Thursday, February 23, 2012

Raiding the Kids' Shelves

Film: Swing Time; The Jungle Book
Format: DVDs from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player (Swing Time) and itty-bitty bedroom television (The Jungle Book).

Today, looking for something a little different, I raided my kids’ DVD shelf and watched a couple of their movies. That might seem strange for the first film, but Gail has owned the complete Astaire/Rogers collection for about four years.

Once upon a time, movies were ridiculously innocent, and no genre of movie was more innocent than the musical. And while I don’t have any proof of it, I think that no brand of musical was more innocent in tone than those done by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This is not a complaint, but an observation. And it’s okay that that’s the case. These films are not about the plot but about the fact that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers may have been the greatest dancing pair in history.

Swing Time follows the basic Astaire/Rogers formula. Boy meets girl, complications ensue, boy gets girl in the end. That really shouldn’t be a spoiler—there’s no real mystery that the pair who begin the film with her disliking him will end with the two madly in love with each other. John “Lucky” Garnett (Astaire) is a professional dancer as well as a fantastically lucky gambler. He’s set to marry a society girl named Margaret (Betty Furness), but in so doing, he’d need to abandon the troupe. So the guys in the troupe cause him to miss his own wedding. Naturally, he’s in trouble with the family, but placates them by saying that he was earning money on his own. Margaret’s father agrees that if his business (he doesn’t know that John is a gambler and that his business is essentially cards and roulette) raises $25,000, he’ll get to marry Margaret.

So Lucky sets off for the big city accompanied by “Pop” Cardetti (Victor Moore), a magician and card sharp. He almost immediately encounters Penny Carrol (Rogers). He’s smitten, and trades away his lucky quarter to her. When he tries to get it back, Pop steals it back, which causes her some trouble when she accuses Lucky of taking it. As it turns out, she is a dance instructor, and he goes to take a lesson from her to explain. Of course, since he’s a professional dancer, he does so well that the two of them are offered a tryout, which Lucky messes up.

And, naturally, the romance won’t be that easy. It seems that Penny is being romanced by a local bandleader named Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa). And Pop is madly in love with Penny’s friend Mabel (Helen Broderick). And into the middle of all of this, Margaret shows up and throws another wrench into the works. And of course it all comes out right in the end with everyone smiling regardless of who they end up with.

The dancing, of course, is top-notch, and couldn’t really be anything else. What is truly impressive is that the vast majority of the dance sequences are done in a single take with a single moving camera. And they are flawless. Astaire and Rogers perform exciting and difficult moves, leaping over things in unison, swinging each other around at the end of numbers, meaning that a mistake at the end would require performing the entire routine again.

What I didn’t expect was a full-blown routine in blackface. Not that big of a deal in the time the film was made, but it’s not something that really plays today. It’s an interesting thing to see in the sense that it’s sort of racially offensive on its face, but it doesn’t come across as attempting to be insensitive. It’s hard to call it respectful, but it does come across as if it is trying to be something close to respectful.

But, that’s a relatively short sequence compared to the length of the film. The plot is what it is—it’s nothing too exciting or original, but it also doesn’t matter at all, because the plot is absolutely secondary to just how damn good the dancing is. Additionally, Astaire is far too likable to really be believable as a gambler and even a part-time swindler. And let’s put this to rest here and now: there’s a saying that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels. I call bullshit. Yes, she did wear heels, but she sure as hell didn’t do everything backwards and she also didn’t do all of the steps that Astaire did. When they dance, you watch Astaire.

The Jungle Book is evidently the last Disney film that Walt Disney himself had a part in creating before his death. As such, it has a unique place in film history. In a sense, it’s the last piece of truly classic Disney animation despite the fact that other films (obviously) followed it. It’s simply a fact that it was a good 20 years before Disney produced an animated film that really captured the public’s imagination.

The story is based on the Rudyard Kipling book of the same name, of course, even though it doesn’t really follow the odd narrative structure of the book and also avoids being as thoroughly dark as the original source material. We have Mowgli the Man-Cub (Bruce Reitherman, son of the director), who was abandoned in the jungle and ended up being raised by a family of wolves and lived under the tutelage of Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot), a kindly but stuffy black panther. Everything is fine until the jungle hears of the return of Shere Khan (George Sanders), a tiger. Shere Khan despises mankind, and Bagheera is concerned that if he discovers the existence of Mowgli, he will hunt him down and kill him.

So, Bagheera determines to take Mowgli to the human village in the jungle where he can not only be with others of his own kind, but can also be kept safe from Shere Khan. It seems that Shere Khan is afraid of only two things—guns and fire—and the village naturally has both. But Mowgli doesn’t want to go to the village; he wants to stay in the jungle, and he’ll do anything to stay despite its dangers. One of those dangers is the bumbling and perpetually hungry python Kaa (Sterling Holloway, best known as the classic voice of Winnie the Pooh). He also encounters a troupe of elephants led by Colonel Hathi (J. Pat O’Malley).

Things change when Mowgli encounters Baloo (Phil Harris), a bear who exists only for a life of ease, making his way calmly through the forest with a philosophy of scraping by on the bare necessities of his existence. He takes Mowgli under his wing to teach him how to become a bear like him. Mowgli is temporarily kidnapped by a group of lively orangutans led by King Louie (Louis Prima) who agrees to let Mowgli stay with him if Mowgli will teach him how to make fire. Mowgli is rescued by Bagheera and Baloo, and Bagheera is finally able to convince Baloo that Mowgli really does belong in the human village.

Of course, this means that Mowgli feels abandoned and lied to, and he runs off, which brings him back face-to-face with Kaa and Shere Khan, as well as a quartet of vultures who are actually friendly and resemble the Beatles (a fact that my 8-year-old daughter picked up on immediately). And so there’s a big confrontation with the tiger, assisted by a handy lightning strike on a nearby tree, as well as another rescue by Baloo and Bagheera. And of course Mowgli ends up near the human village and becomes entranced by an attractive young girl who entices him into the village using her feminine charms and wiles.

It’s cute. It’s fun and has the right amount of danger for kids. The first villain, Kaa, is sort of ridiculous and more funny than dangerous despite the fact that he almost eats Mowgli twice and despite the fact that Mowgli is saved first by Bagheera and second by blind luck. Shere Khan, on the other hand, is quite vicious and nasty. He’s also not in the film much, and I’d like his presence to be a lot larger in the film for him to really establish himself as a menace. As it turns out, he’s merely another thing that threatens Mowgli and not really that much more difficult or that much scarier than the monkeys because of his relatively small role.

It’s also evident that Disney reused a great deal of their animation in previous films in this one, and from this film in later films. I understand that, and I don’t really have a problem with it. Hell, I use templates all the time, and that’s for things that wouldn’t take me hours to recreate. It does, however, seem a bit lazy when sequences of animation are reused exactly in this film multiple times. Kaa’s exits, for instance, are identical down to the frame, and that’s a bit disappointing. Reuse from other films, no problem. Essentially give me the same footage a couple of times and not expect me to notice? Shame on you.

But for what it is, The Jungle Book is entertaining in that last gasp of classic Disney animation way. But for me, it will always be a lesser light when compared with the early classics as well as the brief resurgence of great Disney animation in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Why to watch Swing Time: Because Fred Astaire is always worth watching.
Why not to watch: It’s frequently silly, just like all musicals from the 1930s.

Why to watch The Jungle Book: It’s classic Disney animation.
Why not to watch: Repeated animation.


  1. Great reviews! I haven't seen Swing Time but have been meaning to check it out. The Jungle Book, despite its flaws, is still one of my favorite Disney films.

  2. Swing Time is impressive. If you've seen other Astaire/Rogers films, you'll find a lot to love in it. I think I might like Top Hat better as a story, but Swing Time has better dancing.

  3. When people talk Astaire/Rogers their film Top Hat usually is the one that gets mentioned first. While I like that one quite a bit, I like Swing Time just a little bit better. I liked the scene with Astaire's character pretending to need dancing lessons so he could get close to Rogers' character. They probably had a lot of fun with that.

    For me, the main reason to tell people to see The Jungle Book is for the songs. It has some great Louis Prima music and who doesn't like Baloo's song. Guess what I'm going to be humming the rest of the evening. (bom bom bom bom bear necessities, the simple bear necessities)

  4. I do prefer Top Hat in terms of story. It's difficult for me to buy Astaire as a swindler or gambler. However, the dancing in Swing Time is exceptional. The scene you mention is one of the best dance sequences ever filmed--that thing is done in one shot and goes for about three minutes, and the most difficult moves are at the end.

    As for The Jungle Book, yeah, it's all about the music. You've gotta love Louis Prima.