The next classic from the Disney canon is none other than a retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s tales of Mowgli, the orphan boy who grew up in the jungle. But maybe calling it re-imagining is more accurate. While The Jungle Book is based on Rudyard Kipling’s novel of the same name, the source material was largely discarded for the film. Walt even reportedly told his animators and storytellers to ignore Kipling’s tale when developing Disney’s version of Mowgli’s story.
While the story is a fun, heartwarming tale of a boy urged to find where he belongs in the world (namely the Man Village with the other humans), and introduces us to charming characters like Baloo the Bear and Kaa the Snake, it is the behind-the-scenes drama that makes this film so interesting. The making of this movie was filled with arguments, clashes over creativity, key personnel leaving the company and, of course, tragedy. Yes, The Jungle Book was the last film Walt personally oversaw; he died in December, 1966, due to complications from lung cancer.
After a poor reaction to Disney’s previous film The Sword in the Stone, Walt became heavily involved in the studio’s next project to ensure it would be well received. This caused tension with one of Walt’s lead storymen Bill Peet, who worked hard for a year on initial storyboards that were more faithful to Kipling’s stories. Walt outright rejected Peet’s version of the film, wanting a more family-friendly story, and, after being with the company since the 1930s, Peet quit.
Walt’s insistence on a happily carefree, unfaithful take on the classic tale clashed with composer Terry Gilkyson, as well. Gilkyson was also interested in portraying some of the story’s darker side. His original soundtrack for the film reflected this vision, but when it became apparent he and Walt had two very different ideas for the film, Gilkyson left the studio. He left behind one of the most cherished Disney songs of all time, “The Bare Necessities.” The song is the only part of Gilkyson’s original soundtrack that was kept in the film. Incidentally, it was also the only song from the film to be nominated for an Academy Award. The Sherman Brothers, who would have a long songwriting history with Disney, and who had won an Oscar for their work on Mary Poppins, took over for Gilkyson.
The film, which was released in the fall after Walt’s death, was well received by audiences and critics alike. Nostalgia over the passing of Walt was a likely contribution to the film’s success. Many mused over the studio’s future after the loss of such a pioneering leader. The Jungle Book’s success likely saved the studio from collapse in the late-1960s. The film brought in $73-million in its domestic run alone. Critics seemed to quickly forgive the film’s unfaithfulness to its source material with The New York Times calling it “a perfectly dandy cartoon feature,” adding the picture was “simple, uncluttered, straight-forward fun.” Indeed, it seems as if Walt was never underestimated just how far the Disney touch could go.