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The Jungle Book is one of those movies where every song is my favorite (they’re just that good). “I Wanna Be Like You” takes place close to the halfway point of the story. Mowgli, having run off from Bagheera, finds himself in the company of Baloo (“The Bear Necessities,” which will be covered tomorrow). The unlikely pair hit it off straight-away and Bagheera grudgingly lets them go off together (though convinced that Baloo’s luck won’t last forever). In fact, not long after the panther leaves, Mowgli is swiped by a troop of monkeys and taken away to a ruined city where King Louie, a large orangutan, holds court.
“I Wanna Be Like You” spells out the “plan” that King Louie wants to put into action (I put in quotation marks because it’s not really explained all that well. King Louis isn’t as bright as he thinks he is). The gist of the song is this: King Louie, while being king of the monkeys in the jungle, is not content with being a monkey anymore, he wants to be a MAN, like Mowgli.
To accomplish this, Louie has come to the conclusion that he needs “Man’s Red Flower” (how the jungle animals view fire) and he wants Mowgli to make it for him, or at least reveal how it is done. If Mowgli can do this, then Louie will let Mowgli stay in the jungle forever. Mowgli still wants to stay in the jungle, but unfortunately, having been raised by wolves his whole life, has no idea how fire is made. King Louie doesn’t believe Mowgli, but the plan never really proceeds beyond that point.
For years growing up, I believed that King Louie was voiced by Louis Armstrong, since he played the trumpet during the song. Actually, the crazy orangutan is brought to life by the voice of Louis Prima (1910-1978) and was originally accompanied by his backup band, Sam Butera and The Witnesses, but their instrumental work was replaced later by music composed by George Bruns.
A good portion of the song involves King Louie and his band of monkeys parading around the ruined courtyard while Louie “plays the trumpet.” The story I once heard is that Louis Prima and his band did the exact same thing while recording the song and the animators were standing by to sketch the details and incorporate them into the animation.
For the last section, Louie’s song becomes a duet when Baloo (clumsily disguised as a giant monkey) crashes the party to serve as a distraction while Bagheera tries to rescue an oblivious Mowgli. The pair end up “scat singing” with each other. Scat singing is when a vocal artist sings using nonsense syllables that have no real meaning, they just sound good. Believe it or not, Louis Prima and Phil Harris (the voice of Baloo) recorded their lines at two completely different times (as Harris was unavailable when Prima recorded the song). The original plan was for Harris to parrot back the same scat syllables that Prima used, but when the latter arrived, he refused to do it and made up his own on the spot.
I’m sorry this is a day late, I hope you enjoy “I Wanna Be Like You.” Tomorrow (promise!!) will be “The Bear Necessities.” Have a great day!
*all images are the property of Walt Disney Studios
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