Thirty years after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs changed the landscape of cinema as the very first feature-length animated film, Walt Disney’s death in 1966 at the age of 65 would ultimately represent the end of an era. The three-decade-long golden age of Walt Disney Animation Studios came to a sad close in 1967 with the release of The Jungle Book, the final animated film overseen and produced by Walt himself.
In the years that followed, the studio lost the magic touch Walt somehow always managed to bring to any production. Before their eventual Renaissance in the late 80s and early 90s, nothing managed to capture the spirit of those early films and Disney’s passing almost ended the studio entirely.
While it never quite receives the adoration of most of its counterparts, The Jungle Book is an underrated gem which sequentially stands as a beautiful swansong to the man who started it all. Given the films that followed in the years after Walt’s passing, The Jungle Book highlights the brilliance of Walt Disney and why his death was a loss the studio struggled to recover from.
Interestingly, the initial story treatment by perennial Disney collaborator Bill Peet (who had worked on practically every Disney film since 1937) was much darker and sombre in tone, which more closely resembled author Rudyard Kipling’s vision in his 1894 book on which the film would be based. But this didn’t sit well with Walt, who preferred a more family-friendly approach, particularly after the recent box office failure of The Sword in the Stone. When Peet refused to adjust his writing, he abruptly left the studio and never worked for or spoke to Walt Disney ever again.
“Walt originally planned to include the four members of The Beatles in the film as the voices behind a group of mop-top haired vultures.”
After this unfortunate clash and desperate to produce a smash hit, Walt became more heavily involved with the overall production of the film. Walt’s years of heavy smoking were taking their toll and his health was ailing. Perhaps he may have foreseen this could very well be his final work. Walt hired Larry Clemmons as his new writer, and, under Walt’s watchful eye, he kept the characterisations of Peet’s original treatment and basically threw out everything else. The tone was lightened. The story was simplified. And the foundation was laid for the animators to begin their work.
Comedian and radio sitcom star Phil Harris was hired to voice the lovable bear Baloo. New Orleans jazz singer Louis Prima was tapped to bring King Louie to life. Veteran British actor George Sanders was cast as the film’s menacing villain Shere Khan. And several Disney veteran voice actors were once again utilised including Sterling Holloway (the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland and the original voice of Winnie the Pooh), J. Pat O’Malley (Jasper in 101 Dalmatians and both Tweedledee and Tweedledum in Alice in Wonderland), and, in her final role, the legendary Verna Felton (Mrs. Jumbo in Dumbo, the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, and the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland).
In what would have stood as a major publicity coup, Walt originally planned to include the four members of The Beatles in the film as the voices behind a group of mop-top haired vultures. But John Lennon refused to partake in an animated film, which proved to be ridiculous, given The Beatles would star in Yellow Submarine just three years later. Regardless, the vultures stayed in the film and the voices behind them sounded achingly similar to John, Paul, George, and Ringo anyhow, Liverpudlian accents and all.
“The animation of The Jungle Book still stands as one of Disney’s most beautiful and underappreciated creations.”
Initially, Terry Gilkyson had written several songs for the film that aligned with Peet’s darker original story treatment. But after that was abandoned, so too were all but one of Gilkyson’s creations. Ironically, that one surviving song was “The Bare Necessities,” which became the film’s most enduring number and ultimately the track that received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song (it lost to “Talk to the Animals” from Doctor Doolittle).
Taking Gilkyson’s place were the Sherman Brothers, Richard and Robert, who were riding high after winning two Academy Awards for their work on Disney’s Mary Poppins in 1964. The pair created another masterful soundtrack of joyous numbers including the swinging “”I Wan’na Be Like You,” the ominous “Trust in Me,” and the military-inspired “Colonel Hathi’s March.”
The animation of The Jungle Book still stands as one of Disney’s most beautiful and underappreciated creations. The hand-drawn watercolour backgrounds are evocative and gorgeous. The character designs, led by Disney Legend Ken Anderson, are a visual delight, particularly Anderson’s deft decision to give Shere Khan a striking resemblance to his voice actor Sanders. The idea of animated characters resembling their voice actors would later become a staple of the animation genre, and it all started right here.
“The key messages of The Jungle Book of friendship, family, and finding one’s place in the world are ever eternal.”
Released just ten months after Walt’s death and undoubtedly spurred by nostalgic sentiment over his passing, The Jungle Book was a box office sensation. Produced for $4 million, the film took over $11 million during its initial U.S. run and over $23.8 million worldwide, making it the most successful animated film at that time. After suffering huge losses from The Sword in the Stone, the studio was saved, but without their leader, it proved rather superfluous, and it would be decades before the studio flourished once more.
The key messages of The Jungle Book of friendship, family, and finding one’s place in the world are ever eternal, as is the idea of slowing down and enjoying the simple pleasures of life. While it may not be overtly obvious, there’s also a keen subtext regarding animal conservation and the follies of man’s destruction of the natural world. But, above all things, The Jungle Book is a charming coming of age tale that may follow many familiar tropes, but therein lies its endless charm.
Before the recent “live-action” re-imagining breathed new life into this tale, many had overlooked The Jungle Book in the impressive canon of Disney animated classics. It rarely appears on lists of their greatest achievements. It’s unlikely to be one of the first films parents show their children to introduce them to the magic of Disney. But it’s a film that deserves more kudos. So, pop on that forgotten copy of the DVD or Blu-ray and enjoy Walt Disney’s final piece of animated magic.