What is it about wild bears that makes us want to cuddle up to them, despite the chance that they could rip us to pieces? (Godspeed, Grizzly Man Timothy Treadwell.) Maybe it's because they're furry on top of being fleshy, a doubly tactile appeal. No wonder hefty gay men have idealized bear attributes into an entire subculture but that's another story.
Walt Disney had a genius for tapping the general public's bear love. In the '50s, his studio turned out a number of short cartoons with bears as genial, anthropomorphized buffoons. But the gambit peaked with 1967's The Jungle Book. As a smart documentary in this two-disc set shows, Disney had a crucial hand in shaping the feature before his death from lung cancer in 1966. His staff had struggled to squeeze a jaunty narrative out of Rudyard Kipling's dour, mysterious original tales. Disney himself found one in the bear Baloo, bumping him up from supporting character to star of the show by suggesting that comedian/jazz vocalist Phil Harris provide his voice.
Harris' folksy, shambling delivery gave Disney's animators crucial inspiration. Pitting easygoing Baloo against uptight panther Bagheera (voiced by Sebastian Cabot), they made him an ursine Oscar Madison: sloppy, fun-loving, appetite-driven, and seriously irresponsible. Baloo tells orphaned ''man-cub'' Mowgli everything the lad wants to hear. Never fret or work hard, riffs Baloo, because ''The Bare Necessities'' of life (as explicated in Terry Gilkyson's Oscar-nominated ditty) will sustain you.
Anybody who's read Into the Wild knows Baloo's advice is a crock. But hey, there's a reason sloth ranks among the deadly sins: It's seductive. And in this new DVD transfer, so is Baloo's lush domain, thanks to a scrupulous ''digital restoration'' that makes every shady glade and lazy river glow with exactly the right original-artwork colors. What a bright, delicious vision of nature as the ultimate bachelor pad and what a pleasure to savor it from the safe harbor of a couch.