The Jungle Book (1967) Disney Studio Artist, Story Sketch, conte crayon, marker, and ink on paper. © Disney
The Jungle Book (1967) Disney Studio Artist, Story Sketch, conte crayon, marker, and ink on paper. © Disney
Stories & Ideas

Sat 08 May 2021

Walt Disney and the lasting legacy of The Jungle Book

AnimationDisney: The Magic of AnimationFilm
Matt Millikan
Matt Millikan

Senior Writer & Editor

The Jungle Book is the last film that Walt Disney personally left his mark on.

One of the most enduring moments of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ The Jungle Book (1967) happens when the man-cub Mowgli first encounters the loveable Baloo. After almost being eaten by the Indian rock python Kaa the night before, and having just been abandoned by his frustrated panther protector Bagheera, the happy-go-lucky Baloo is a welcome sight. Unlike Bagheera, who bemoans the approaching “shiftless, stupid jungle bum”, Baloo’s not interested in forcing Mowgli to join the man village. Why would he do that when the man-cub could stay in the jungle and adopt the laid-back bear’s laid-back ways?

Baloo outlines his carefree approach through the Academy Award-nominated musical number “The Bare Necessities”, which promises an easy life by being satisfied by the small things so you “don’t spend your time lookin’ around for something you want that can’t be found”. For Mowgli, who’s being marched from his home by Bagheera (for good intentions – like saving him from the man-hating tiger Shere Khan), Baloo’s attitude is enticing, especially when it’s proposed through song and dance. At the height of the song, Baloo slips into a nearby river on his back, floating downstream with the man-cub bouncing on his stomach, relaxed and happy. An early concept sketch of this memorable moment is featured at the top of the page and shows the warmth and friendship budding between these two iconic characters – never mind that minutes later they’re attacked by King Louie’s monkey minions.

In many ways, The Jungle Book is a buddy comedy starring Mowgli and Baloo, and part of their on-screen chemistry comes down to the professional partnership and real-life friendship between animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. In The Making of The Jungle Book, Johnston remarks that he’s most proud of the pair getting “that real warm friendship to come through”, which they felt would be “the heart of the picture” because warmth was “...what Walt always wanted...”.

And Walt Disney was very involved in developing The Jungle Book, in fact it was the last Disney film that he personally oversaw. After The Sword and the Stone (1963) didn’t meet the studio’s expectations, Disney stripped back the production on The Jungle Book to use a smaller, tighter knit creative team than they had on the last picture. This intimacy is apparent in the loving animation style and the characters, which Walt reportedly prized above the plot. In original drafts of the script, the film was much darker and more closely resembled Rudyard Kipling’s source material, but Disney simplified the story so that the characters could shine.

In The Legacy of The Jungle Book, Walt’s nephew Roy E Disney comments that “he obviously got hooked on the jungle and the characters that lived there”. That investment in the characters even involved acting the character’s roles during story meetings to develop their emotions, as well as coming up with gags and story sequences. Legendary animator Eric Goldberg agrees: “I think his stamp is on the strength of the personalities.”

For a lot of The Jungle Book’s iconic characters, the cast who played them also invested their unique personalities. While it wasn’t uncommon for radio stars to lend their voices to animated pictures, The Jungle Book was one of the first animated films to feature celebrity voices and that directive came from Walt Disney. Baloo wouldn’t be the same easygoing animal if it weren’t for the talents of comedian and bandleader Phil Harris, who Disney knew socially and recommended for the role. Once he had the part, Harris made it his own, bringing his persona to Baloo, who is meant to be a wise and reserved sage in the book but on-screen is energetic and charismatic, including by improvising his lines.

Likewise, Shere Kahn’s menacing aristocracy owes a lot to film and TV star George Sanders’ upper-class British accent.

However, the animators also studied the movement of animals to inform the way that the characters appeared. That kind of thinking extended to man-cub Mowgli, who was played by director Wolfgang Reitherman' s son Bruce, which was handy because they shot footage of Bruce to use as a guide for Mowgli’s movement. In fact, in some scenes they took inspiration from animated scenes of another Bruce Reitherman performance – Christopher Robin in Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966). Animating film by hand is an incredibly time-consuming activity, so animators commonly reuse scenes of animation in this way and even went on to use the blueprint of Baloo’s dancing for scenes of Little John (also voiced by Harris) in Robin Hood (1973).

All of these elements – animation, performance and casting – help craft characters on-screen and The Jungle Book created some of Disney’s most beloved. The loveable Baloo not only appeared in 2003’s The Jungle Book 2, but he was also reimagined as a pilot in the TV cartoon TaleSpin (1990-91), a baby in Jungle Cubs (1996-98), a strict teacher in an anime film that adheres more closely to the original book incarnation and as a black bear in the 1994 live-action version, not to mention Bill Murray’s portrayal in the 2016 live-action remake.

Thanks to the film’s gorgeous animation, celebration of friendship and unforgettable scenes, you can bet these characters will continue to endure in the minds and hearts of audiences for generations to come.

Matt Millikan

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