Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Jungle Book

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Jungle Book

In many ways, The Jungle Book marks the end of a journey that began all the way back in 1921 when Walt Disney founded the Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City. Walt didn’t invent animation by any stretch of the imagination. But he had revolutionized the format many times over since those early days back in Kansas. As the last animated feature Walt Disney had a hand in, The Jungle Book automatically earns a special place in history.

Of course, the studio had gone through some major changes since their first animated feature, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Back then, the entire operation revolved around nothing but animation. Walt was personally involved in every aspect of production, poring over every cel and story beat until it was just right.

By the time work began on The Jungle Book in the mid-‘60s, animation was a small fraction of the studio’s output and Walt was trusting his staff to make most of the major decisions. It’s a testament to Walt’s love of animation that the studio was even continuing to make cartoons. The animation division had been on the chopping block more than once during economic lean times. Animation was expensive and time-consuming and Walt certainly didn’t need the extra work. Most of his attention was now devoted to live-action films, television production, Disneyland and his ambitious new Florida venture, EPCOT.

There had once been an entire department devoted to story development. Story meetings could turn into raucous affairs with Walt and his team acting out entire films. For the last several years, Bill Peet had been a one-man story department. After proving himself on One Hundred And One Dalmatians, Peet had been entrusted with The Sword In The Stone. It was Peet’s idea to develop a feature based on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Walt thought that sounded like a swell idea and Peet went off to work his magic.

But The Sword In The Stone hadn’t quite turned out the way Walt had hoped, so he decided to get a bit more involved with The Jungle Book. He looked at Peet’s treatment and storyboards, which were heading in a very dark and dramatic direction, and essentially told him to lighten up. Peet strongly disagreed, arguing that it went against Kipling’s original stories (he wasn’t wrong about that). Walt didn’t really care. He wanted to make a movie everybody could enjoy, not just members of the Kipling Society. When Walt continued to insist on significant changes to the script, Peet quit, a bad end to a relationship that stretched back to the 1930s.

With Bill Peet gone, Walt turned The Jungle Book over to Larry Clemmons. Clemmons started with the studio as an assistant animator back in the ‘30s but left when World War II broke out. He came into his own as a writer working for Bing Crosby’s radio shows. When he returned to the Disney studio in the 1950s, it was as a writer and producer for the Disneyland and Mickey Mouse Club TV shows.

Clemmons struggled with the assignment at first. Kipling’s book was so episodic that he couldn’t find an actual story to hang his hat on. Walt advised him not to worry about it and instead focus on the characters and their personalities. He also brought in the Sherman brothers, whose songs had helped shape Mary Poppins’ story. They would be replacing Terry Gilkyson, a folksinger who had written several original songs for Peet’s abandoned, darker version of the film. Gilkyson was no stranger to the Disney studio. He’d contributed songs to Swiss Family Robinson, Savage Sam, The Scarecrow Of Romney Marsh, The Three Lives Of Thomasina, and The Moon-Spinners.

By all accounts, everyone was having a hard time wrapping their minds around what Walt envisioned for The Jungle Book until he suggested casting jazzman and radio star Phil Harris as Baloo the bear. Harris had been the bandleader on Jack Benny’s program. His appearances were so popular that he eventually got his own show, headlining with his wife, Alice Faye. Everyone knew Harris’ voice and it was nobody’s idea of what a Rudyard Kipling character should sound like. Even Harris didn’t think he was the right man for the job. Once he got to the studio, he was uncomfortable delivering the lines as written and asked to permission to just do it “his way”. All of a sudden, Baloo came to life as a fully-formed character, albeit one that didn’t have much to do with Kipling.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Jungle Book

After that epiphany, things seemed to click for The Jungle Book crew. The character designers and animators were inspired by the vocal performances. Once Harris joined the cast, someone (I’ve seen multiple people take credit for it) had the idea to cast Louis Prima, another instantly recognizable voice from the jazz and swing world, as King Louie the orangutan. Disney legend Sterling Holloway was cast against type as the villainous snake, Kaa, another of Walt’s suggestions. And to lend at least a little British authenticity, Sebastian Cabot was tapped to play Bagheera the panther and the great George Sanders was cast as Shere Khan, the man-hating tiger. Cabot had previously done voice work on The Sword In The Stone and appeared in Johnny Tremain, while Sanders was previously seen menacing Hayley Mills in In Search Of The Castaways.

This wasn’t the first time Disney had relied on celebrity vocal performances. Bing Crosby was near the peak of his popularity when he voiced his half of The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad. Even Cliff Edwards was a known commodity when he was cast as Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. But this was certainly the starriest cast Disney had assembled to date and not everyone was happy about it. You can draw a straight line from Phil Harris’ improvised performance as Baloo to Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin.

Today, there is absolutely an over-reliance on celebrity voices in animation. But young audiences discovering The Jungle Book for the first time have no idea who Phil Harris, Louis Prima, George Sanders or any of these people are (you’ll be doing them a kindness if you continue to expose your kids to these talents after they watch this). I was born just a couple years after The Jungle Book was released and this was certainly my introduction to them. A voice either works or it doesn’t work, regardless of how famous the face attached to it might be. There’s no denying that the voices in The Jungle Book are absolutely spot-on.

That extends to the youngest members of the cast. Bruce Reitherman, son of director Wolfgang Reitherman, got the part of Mowgli after the original actor’s voice changed midway through. Woolie Reitherman also battled puberty on The Sword In The Stone, cycling through no less than three kids (including two more sons, Richard and Robert) as Wart. Bruce had already performed the voice of Christopher Robin in Winnie The Pooh And The Honey Tree, so he knew his way around a studio. He was also young enough to make it through production without a voice change.

Bruce wasn’t the only young Winnie The Pooh alum in the cast. Clint Howard, the voice of Roo, provides the voice of the young elephant. Howard made his screen debut at the ripe old age of 2 on The Andy Griffith Show and he’s been busy ever since. Around this same time, he was guesting on shows like Star Trek and starring in Gentle Ben, which premiered just a few months before The Jungle Book. Clint will be back in this column before long, alongside his older brother, Ronny.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Jungle Book

The Sherman Brothers ended up contributing five original songs to The Jungle Book, the best of which is unquestionably “I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)”. Louis Prima is a perfect fit for the song. His signature style sounds nothing like any Disney song that had come before. It’s one of the biggest indications so far that Disney could change with the times, even if that change came slowly.

The Shermans’ other songs are honestly not up to the same level. Kaa’s “Trust In Me (The Python’s Song)”, which recycles a melody from an abandoned Mary Poppins song, isn’t bad and it’s imaginatively animated. But it doesn’t stay with you. “Colonel Hathi’s March”, on the other hand, does stick with you and not in a good way. It’s an annoying military-style earworm, so of course that’s the song that gets a reprise.

Probably the biggest miscalculation is “That’s What Friends Are For (The Vulture Song)”, a barbershop quartet number performed by four vultures modeled after The Beatles. It was originally meant to be performed as a rock & roll song until Walt got cold feet, worried that the style would date the picture. So naturally the Shermans changed it to that most timeless of styles, barbershop. That never gets old.

This is one of those rare times that Walt’s usually unerring sense of what will or will not stand the test of time failed him. For one thing, rock & roll has proven to be a whole lot more enduring than Walt predicted. Certainly more than barbershop, a time machine back to the days of vaudeville and straw boaters.

More importantly, the musical style certainly wouldn’t date the movie any more or less than the fact that the vultures are physically and vocally modeled after The Beatles. Two of their voices were even provided by Lord Tim Hudson, a Los Angeles DJ with a dubious claim to being a friend of the Fab Four, and Chad Stuart of the British Invasion pop duo Chad & Jeremy (the others were J. Pat O’Malley and Digby Wolfe). So now you’ve got The Beatles singing a barbershop quartet, a reference that’s both dated and incongruous.

Ironically, the one song from The Jungle Book to receive an Academy Award nomination and arguably its most popular number overall was the one that almost got cut. Terry Gilkyson’s “The Bare Necessities” survived from Bill Peet’s abandoned version. If Walt had his way, it also would have ended up on the cutting room floor. When he brought the Shermans on board, he wanted to eliminate all of Gilkyson’s songs and start fresh. The animators fought for the song and Walt eventually relented.

Today, it’s impossible to imagine The Jungle Book without “The Bare Necessities”. It’s one of the best, most iconic numbers in the Disney Songbook. Plenty of classic Disney songs failed to win Oscars but Gilkyson really got robbed. The Oscar went to “Talk To The Animals” from the overstuffed musical Doctor Dolittle. Terry Gilkyson never quite became one of Disney’s go-to songwriters but he’ll be back in this column at least once more.

The Jungle Book is a hard movie to dislike. Walt instructed his team to focus on character and personality and they followed his mandate to the letter. Everybody remembers Baloo, King Louie, Shere Khan and the rest. They’re vivid, fun, highly entertaining characters that pop off the screen.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Jungle Book

The movie’s biggest flaw is Mowgli himself. Everything revolves around him and our investment in the story depends on us believing that Baloo and Bagheera really love this little man cub. But he’s a total blank slate. His only goal is a negative. He doesn’t know what he wants to do, he only knows that he does not want to go to the man-village. And for a kid who was raised for years by wolves in the jungle, he displays virtually no wolf-like characteristics. The wolves, not so coincidentally, are also the animals we spend the least amount of time with. They’re theoretically his family, right? If anybody should care about Mowgli leaving the jungle, you’d think it would be them.

Walt didn’t want his team getting too hung up on story but it would have been nice if they’d put a little bit more effort into it. The movie ends up turning into a series of encounters that don’t necessarily feed into one another. Even the threat of Shere Khan feels underbaked. When the final showdown does arrive, it’s difficult to feel like the stakes are too high. Walt continues to keep things light and jaunty up to the end, even when a tiger is trying to eat a little boy. It’s one of the most tension-free climaxes in Disney history.

The movie comes to a rather abrupt end when Mowgli sees a girl fetching some water by the river. He’s instantly smitten, shrugs his shoulders and follows her into the man-village as Baloo and Bagheera bop back into the jungle. The Blu-ray release storyboards an “alternate ending” from Peet’s version that’s really more like an alternate second half. Here, Mowgli is reunited with his birth parents and runs afoul of a treasure-seeking hunter. The movie is probably better without this lengthy digression. The quick pace allows The Jungle Book’s strengths to come into clearer focus. If the choice is between the movie slowly petering out or just stopping all of a sudden, I suppose I prefer the latter.

The Jungle Book was released on October 18, 1967, not quite a year after Walt Disney’s death. Critics and audiences alike were very pleased with Walt’s farewell animation. It was the studio’s highest-grossing film of 1967 and the 9th highest-grossing movie of the year overall, ahead of Camelot and just behind Thoroughly Modern Millie. Over the years, re-releases have added to its total both at home and overseas. According to a 2016 Hollywood Reporter article, it’s the biggest movie of all-time in Germany, ahead of Avatar, Titanic or any of those other also-rans.

More Jungle Book album cover

In 1968, Disney tested the sequel waters, bringing back Phil Harris and Louis Prima for the book-and-record set More Jungle Book. The album didn’t do well and The Jungle Book went back on the shelf for awhile. In the 1990s, Disney brought the characters to television, first on the show TaleSpin and later on Jungle Cubs. Not long after, the studio brought Baloo and company back to theatres, in animation, in live-action and in whatever you want to call the CGI hybrid style employed by Jon Favreau. This column will be getting to many of those eventually.

Disney’s original The Jungle Book continues to have a place in the hearts of fans around the world. Walt had made better, more important animated features before and the studio that still bears his name has made better movies since. But it’s hard to argue against a movie with no ulterior motive other than showing its audience a good time. It’s fun, breezy and as easy to swallow as sweet tea on a hot day. It really does provide the bare necessities of what you want out of a Disney movie.

VERDICT: Disney Plus  

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