Every person between the ages of 2 and 100 has their own views on which is the greatest of the animated Disney films. One of the pioneering originals like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” or “Dumbo?” A seminal ’50s-era fairy tale like “Alice In Wonderland” or “Sleeping Beauty?” Something undersung from the 1970s like “The Rescuers” or “Robin Hood?” One of the films from the early 1990s revival like “Aladdin” or “The Lion King?” Or a modern-day Pixar insta-classic like “The Incredibles” or “Up“?
Almost everyone will have their own answer, but if you were to ask me, I wouldn’t have to think about for a second: it’s clearly 1967’s “The Jungle Book,” the last Disney animated film to feature Walt Disney‘s direct input, and a joyous, vibrant, scary and moving adaptation of Rudyard Kipling‘s classic adventure stories. Released 45 years ago today, on October 18th 1967 (just shy of a year after Walt’s passing) the film might mark something of the end of an era, but it also saw the Disney formula perfected. And none other than Gregory Peck, then the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fought to get an Oscar nomination for the film (unsuccessfully, causing Peck to eventually resign his position).
But we could have come close to a very different movie. It originally came to pass after Disney legend Bill Peet, after finishing work on 1963’s “The Sword in the Stone,” suggested to Walt Disney that they work on a project that used more animals, and that that film should be an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling‘s “The Jungle Book.” Disney gave him the thumbs up to start writing, but the book proved a tough nut to crack — it’s an episodic collection of fables, not all of which focus on the central human character Mowgli. Furthermore, it’s an unsparing, sometimes tough piece of work, and while Peet managed to wrangle the narrative into a more coherent form (inventing the character of King Louie the orangutan along the way), his take was closer to Kipling’s original, with all the violence and the darkness that might suggest.
Walt, already unimpressed with Peet after “The Sword in the Stone” underperformed with critics, rejected the script, and when Peet wouldn’t compromise, he left Disney after 25 years with the company (he never worked on another film again). Disney brought on longtime employee Larry Clemmons in his place to head up the story department, along with Ralph Wright, Ken Anderson and Vance Gerry, for a version that departed from the source material (Disney supposedly gave Clemons a copy of the book while telling him “The first thing I want you to do is not to read it”). Disney encouraged them to keep the narrative simple, and played a key part in shaping the structure and story of the film — for what would turn out to be the last time.
What they came up with might be softened, but it’s hardly without edge. In the film, Mowgli is an orphan boy taken in and raised by a wolf, aided by the assistance of black panther Bagheera. But when the demonic Bengal tiger Shere Khan returns to the jungle, they must journey to take Mowgli back to the village, as they encounter characters including take-it-easy bear Baloo, sinister snake Kaa, and the human-envying orangutan King Louie.
And, while we’ll never know how Peet’s darker take would have been, the finished film is a marvel. Fitting in an amazing amount for a film that runs at a lean 78 minutes, from elephant parades to intimate emotion, it’s perhaps not the strongest Disney narrative, but it’s able to encompass thrilling action sequences, genuinely funny comedy tangents, frightening villains, and one of the most touching and emotional backbones in the animated canon — Mowgli’s search for somewhere he feels at home, and his relationship with surrogate parents Bagheera and Baloo (whose attempt to save his charge from Shere Khan at the end never fails to have us sobbing).
All wrapped up in gorgeous animation that still looks great close to a half-century on, the film has a vibrant, loose feel, partly achieved by the glorious music, which features classic songs like “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You.” Originally, songwriter Terry Gilkyson had been brought on to write the music, but along with Peet’s contributions, they were mostly found to be too dark, and Walt Disney excised most of his work — with the exception of one song, “The Bare Necessities,” which saw him win an Oscar nomination. Disney favorites the Sherman Brothers (who penned the songs for “Mary Poppins” — watch for them being played by Jason Schwartzmann and B.J. Novak in next year’s “Saving Mr. Banks”) were brought on to pen the rest.
The music also showcases another innovation of the film, for better or worse — it’s almost the first time that quote-unquote celebrity voices became intrinsic to the process. Disney had flirted with the use of well-known actors in the past (“The Time Machine” star Rod Taylor voiced Pongo in “101 Dalmatians,” for instance), but for the most part the voiceover cast tended to be little-known specialists, often drawn from the same pool. But alongside Disney regulars like Sebastian Cabot (as Bagheera) and Sterling Holloway (as Kaa) in “The Jungle Book” were more famous faces — radio legend and musician Phil Harris lending his warm, laid back presence as Baloo, British character actor George Sanders as Shere Khan (who was also modelled on the actor’s likeness), and perhaps most memorably of all, jazz star Louis Prima as King Louie. Prima’s band would go on to re-record the film’s songs for a secondary soundtrack album to the film (hear below).
And Prima wasn’t the only musician courted by Disney — the producer met with Brian Epstein in 1965 hoping to woo The Beatles, then at the height of their fame, to voice the Vultures in the film and sing their song “That’s What Friends Are For.” Reportedly, it was John Lennon who nixed the idea — he was already ambivalent about the ABC “The Beatles” cartoon series that started airing the same year, and screamed at Epstein, “There’s no way The Beatles are gonna sing for Mickey fucking Mouse. You can tell Walt Disney to fuck off. Tell him to get Elvis off his fat arse, he’s into making crap fucking movies.”
The Vultures’ musical number was adapted into a barbershop tune, but the characters retain Liverpudlian accents, voiced by fellow Merseybeat artist Chad Stuart, of Chad & Jeremy, radio DJ Lord Tim Hudson, actor/writer Digby Wolfe and Disney veteran J. Pat O’Malley. One other actor to listen out for — a young Clint Howard (brother of Ron), who voices baby elephant Junior, while original Mowgli David Alan Bailey was replaced when his voice broke, with director Wolfgang Reitherman casting his own son Bruce in his place (the younger Reitherman would go on to become the director of nature documentaries).
After overcoming so many hurdles, a further shadow was cast over the production on December 15th, 1966, when Walt Disney passed away, only six weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer caused by his life-long smoking habit. “The Jungle Book” would be the last Disney animated feature to be personally overseen by the studio’s founder. Ten months later, almost to the day, the film hit theaters, and proved to be a giant success. And thanks to three re-releases over the decades, it still stands as the 30th biggest-grossing film of all time, when adjusted for inflation, making the equivalent of $590 million at the U.S. box office. Despite Peck’s campaigning, the film was excluded from the Best Picture field at the Academy Awards, and was even beaten to Best Song by mega-flop “Doctor Dolittle.”
Unsurprisingly, Disney have gone back to the well a few times, never entirely successfully. A year after release, an album, More Jungle Book was released that continued the story, and more recently, a vastly inferior official film sequel “The Jungle Book 2” (with Haley Joel Osment as Mowgli and John Goodman as Baloo) was produced by Disney’s direct-to-video label DisneyToons, somehow managing a theatrical re-release. Future “The Mummy” director Stephen Sommers directed a more respectable live-action remake for the studio, starring Jason Scott Lee, Cary Elwes, Sam Neill, John Cleese and a young Lena Headey in 1994, while the same period saw characters from the animated film crop up in two animated series — 1990s bonkers but fondly remembered “TaleSpin,” which melds Baloo and co. with Howard Hawks‘ “Only Angels Have Wings” for some reason, and the more traditional, “Muppet Babies“-style “Jungle Cubs.” But the varying degrees of quality of the spin-offs can, quite frankly, never hold a candle to the original.