Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”
Title: Jungle Book
Source materials : The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Budget: $4 million
Box office: $23.8 million worldwide in its first release; $205.8 million lifetime
Plot: Mowgli, a young orphan boy, is found in a basket in the deep jungles of India by Bagheera, a black panther who promptly takes him to a mother wolf who has just had cubs. She raises him along with her own cubs and Mowgli soon becomes well acquainted with jungle life.
Ten years later, the wolf tribe learns that Shere Khan, a man-eating Bengal tiger, has returned to the jungle. They realize that Mowgli must be taken to the “Man-Village” for his (and their) own safety. Bagheera volunteers to escort him back. They leave that very night, but Mowgli is determined to stay in the jungle. He and Bagheera rest in a tree for the night, where Kaa, a hungry python, tries to devour Mowgli, but Bagheera intervenes.
The next morning, Mowgli tries to join the elephant patrol led by Colonel Hathi and his wife Winifred. Bagheera finds Mowgli, but after a fight decides to leave Mowgli on his own.
Mowgli soon meets up with the laid-back, fun-loving bear Baloo, who promises to raise Mowgli himself and never take him back to the Man-Village.
Shortly afterwards, a group of monkeys kidnap Mowgli and take him to their leader, King Louie the orangutan. King Louie offers to help Mowgli stay in the jungle if he will tell Louie how to make fire like other humans. However, since he was not raised by humans, Mowgli does not know how to make fire. Bagheera and Baloo arrive to rescue Mowgli and in the ensuing chaos, King Louie’s palace is demolished to rubble.
Bagheera speaks to Baloo that night and convinces him that the jungle will never be safe for Mowgli so long as Shere Khan is there. In the morning, Baloo reluctantly explains to Mowgli that the Man-Village is best for the boy, but Mowgli accuses him of breaking his promise and runs away. As Baloo sets off in search of Mowgli, Bagheera rallies the help of Hathi and his patrol. However, Shere Khan himself, who was eavesdropping on Bagheera and Hathi’s conversation, is now determined to hunt and kill Mowgli himself. Meanwhile, Mowgli has encountered Kaa once again, but thanks to the unwitting intervention of the suspicious Shere Khan, Mowgli escapes.
As a storm gathers, a depressed Mowgli encounters a group of friendly vultures who accept Mowgli as a fellow outcast. Shere Khan appears shortly after, scaring off the vultures and confronting Mowgli. Baloo rushes to the rescue and tries to keep Shere Khan away from Mowgli, but is injured. When lightning strikes a nearby tree and sets it ablaze, the vultures swoop in to distract Shere Khan while Mowgli gathers flaming branches and ties them to Shere Khan’s tail. Terrified of fire, the tiger panics and runs off.
Bagheera and Baloo take Mowgli to the edge of the Man-Village, but Mowgli is still hesitant to go there. His mind soon changes when he is smitten by a beautiful young girl from the village who is coming down by the riverside to fetch water. After noticing Mowgli, she “accidentally” drops her water pot. Mowgli retrieves it for her and follows her into the Man-Village. After Mowgli chooses to stay in the Man-Village, Baloo and Bagheera decide to head home, content that Mowgli is safe and happy with his own kind.
Changes from the novel: The film’s writers decided to make the story more straightforward, as the novel is very episodic, with Mowgli going back and forth from the jungle to the Man-Village, and writer Bill Peet felt that Mowgli returning to the Man-Village should be the ending for the film. Following suggestions, Peet also created two original characters: The human girl for which Mowgli falls in love, and Louie, king of the monkeys. Disney was not pleased with how the story was turning out, as he felt it was too dark for family viewing and insisted on script changes. Peet refused, and after a long argument, Peet left the Disney studio in January 1964.
In the original book, the vultures are grim and evil characters who feast on the dead. Disney lightened it up by having the vultures bearing a physical and vocal resemblance to The Beatles, including the signature mop-top haircut.
Background: After The Sword in the Stone was released, storyman Bill Peet claimed to Walt that “we [the animation department] can do more interesting animal characters” and suggested that Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book could be used for the studio’s next film. Disney agreed and Peet created an original treatment, with little supervision, as he had done with One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone. Although much of Bill Peet’s work was discarded, the personalities of the characters remained in the final film. This was because Disney felt that the story should be kept simple, and the characters should drive the story. Disney took an active role in the story meetings, acting out each role and helping to explore the emotions of the characters, help create gags and develop emotional sequences. The Jungle Book was the last film that Walt supervised before his death on December 15th, 1966.
Animation: Like the forest sequence of Sleeping Beauty, the animators were in charge of whole sequences, since many have characters interacting with one another. The animation was done by xerography, with character design, led by Ken Anderson, employing rough, artistic edges in contrast to the round animals seen in productions such as Dumbo.
Backgrounds were hand-painted and sometimes scenery was used in both foreground and bottom to create a notion of depth Animator Milt Kahl based Bagheera and Shere Khan’s movements on live-action felines, which he saw in two Disney productions, A Tiger Walks and the “Jungle Cat” episode of True-Life Adventures. The monkeys’ dance during “I Wan’na Be Like You” was partially inspired by a performance Louis Prima did with his band at Disney’s soundstage to convince Walt Disney to cast him.
Songs: The score features eight original songs: seven by the Sherman Brothers and one by Terry Gilkyson. Longtime Disney collaborator Gilkyson was the first songwriter to bring several complete songs which followed the book closely but Walt Disney felt that his efforts were too dark. The only piece of Gilkyson’s work which survived to the final film was his upbeat tune “The Bare Necessities”, which was liked by the rest of the film crew. The Sherman Brothers were then brought in to do a complete rewrite.
Phil Harris as Baloo. He was a comedian, actor, singer, and jazz musician. His hallmark song was “That’s What I Like About the South.” Walt met him at a party and he improvised most of his lines. Sebastian Cabot returns as Bagheera. He’s best known as Giles French in the CBS series Family Affair.
Louie Prima as King Louie. He was a popular singer, actor, songwriter, bandleader, and trumpeter. Oscar winner George Sanders as Shere Khan. He won the Oscar for All About Eve and is also known for playing Mr. Freeze on the television show Batman.
Sterling Holloway, J. Pat O’Malley, and Verna Felton return. It would be Felton’s final performance. Clint Howard (who was known at the time as a child actor along with his brother Ron) as Junior.
Time noted that the film strayed far from the Kipling stories, but “the result is thoroughly delightful…it is the happiest possible way to remember Walt Disney.” The New York Times called it “a perfectly dandy cartoon feature,” and Life magazine referred to it as “the best thing of its kind since Dumbo, another short, bright, unscary and blessedly uncultivated cartoon.” Variety’s review was generally positive, but they stated that “the story development is restrained” and that younger audiences “may squirm at times.”
The song “The Bare Necessities” was nominated for Best Song at the 40th Academy Awards, losing to “Talk to the Animals” from Doctor Dolittle . Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Gregory Peck lobbied extensively for this film to be nominated for Best Picture, but was unsuccessful.
Legacy: Disney released a live-action remake in 1994 and an animated sequel, The Jungle Book 2, in 2003; another live-action adaptation directed by Jon Favreau was released in 2016.
Baloo and King Louie greet guests at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
My take: I saw this film the first time it was re-released in 1978 and the old Peninsula Drive-in at the age of five. The songs are fun, especially “I Wanna Be Like You.”
Next Week: The Aristocats