“The Jungle Book was released exactly thirty years after the debut of Disney’s first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In the ensuing years, the Disney staff had conquered the field of animation so thoroughly that there seemed nowhere else to go. The challenge facing the production team, which had worked together on so many films, was how not to go stale or simply tread water. And now they would have to confront that challenge without their leader.”
This quote from Leonard Maltin’s book, The Disney Films, perfectly sums up all that was riding on The Jungle Book when it came to theaters fifty-five years ago.
Released a little less than a year after the death of Walt Disney in December of 1966, the animated feature would be the last to bear his personal stamp. It would also be the film that so many would be watching closely, as it would be the first animated feature made without the complete guidance of the man who helped create the blueprint for it.Walt Disney obtained the rights to author Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book in 1963. Legendary story man Bill Peet worked on The Jungle Book and recalled, in his book, Bill Peet An Autobiography: “When I had six or seven boards worked out, I presented that first phase of the story to Walt and the guys. Everyone was excited about the animation possibilities, and Walt was so pleased he came over to shake my hand. He also liked my idea for the song ‘Bear Necessities,’ something for Baloo the bear to sing – so I was off and running.”
Peet wanted to bring the darker tone of Kipling’s book to the screen, which Walt wasn’t happy with, so he turned the script over to another legend of the studio’s story department, Larry Clemmons. According to Clemmons, Walt said, “Here is the original by Rudyard Kipling. The first thing I want you to do is not to read it.”
The Jungle Book transitioned to a simpler, character-driven story. The film became the tale of “man cub” Mowgli, abandoned in the jungle, and Bagheera, the panther who is charged with getting the young boy back to the man village. Along the way, Mowgli meets Baloo the bear, King Louie the orangutan, Colonel Hathi the elephant, Kaa the snake, and the villain, Shere Khan, the tiger.With this storyline, there were changes to the cast in the film during production, most notably, a Rhinoceros character named Rocky (who was to be voiced by comedian Frank Fontaine, well known at the time for playing “Crazy Guggenheim” on The Jackie Gleason Show), but the character was ultimately cut.
The grim vultures from Kipling’s original book transitioned to caricatures of The Beatles. Baloo, initially just a cameo appearance, also became a more prominent presence in the story as revisions were made, with his song, “The Bear Necessities,” becoming a signature moment for the film and an iconic moment for Disney animation.
The Oscar-nominated song was one of many musical numbers created by Terry Gilkyson, who had also crafted others for the film, which were eventually removed from the film as The Jungle Book went through its various story changes.
Gilkyson’s other songs were replaced by those by legendary Disney collaborators Richard and Robert Sherman. Among The Sherman Brothers’ contributions was “I Wanna Be Like You,” which King Louie sings to Mowgli. For more on the soundtrack, check out Greg Ehrbar’s article from 2018.
The scat-infused Dixieland number was a showcase for singer Louis Prima, who was the voice of King Louie. The singer was one of many well-known voices in The Jungle Book, including Sebastian Cabot as Bagheera the panther, Phil Harris as Baloo, Sterling Holloway at Kaa the snake, J. Pat O’Malley, as Colonel Hathi, the elephant (and Buzzie, one of the vultures) and George Sanders, as the villainous tiger, Shere Kahn. Bruce Reitherman, son of the film’s director, Wolfgang Reitherman, served as the voice of Mowgli.
The voices would inform the characters’ performances – Harris’ carefree attitude carried over to Baloo’s persona, particularly in the hand-slapping, be-bopping dance movements, and Sanders urbane, above-it-all manner resulted in a wonderful moment where Shere Khan casually interrogates Kaa.
It’s one of the many scenes of brilliant character animation in The Jungle Book. Shere Khan’s quiet malevolence, coupled with more realistic feline movements, were brought to the screen by Milt Kahl; the comedic cluelessness of the elephant brigade was by John Lounsbery; and the warm relationship that develops between Baloo and Mowgli from Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston are all examples of legendary talents and so many of Walt’s Nine Old Men doing what they did best: bringing forth performance and acting, through drawings.
When The Jungle Book was released on October 18th, 1967, it went on to earn over $23.8 million worldwide, which, at the time, made it the most successful animated film during its initial run. The Disney Studio would breathe a sigh of relief, and the audience’s acceptance allowed many to put their concerns aside.
The film’s lasting impact inspired the Disney TV shows Tale Spin and Jungle Cubs in the 90s, as well as a sequel, released in 2003 and a live action/CGI re-make in 2016.
The success of The Jungle Book, coming just after Walt’s passing, signaled what many considered a “last hurrah” at the studio for a period of time, as the 70s and most of the 80s were challenging for Disney, where animated film production was sparse and didn’t live up to past glory. It wasn’t until 1989’s The Little Mermaid that Disney would see a hit of this magnitude again.
Fifty-five years later, The Jungle Book rightfully stands as one of the studio’s masterpieces. As Time magazine said in their review in 1967: “…it is the happiest possible way to remember Walt Disney.”