Old Men and Animal Dreamers: The Jungle Book (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1967)

The production of feature animated films emerged from a series of risky gambles that distinguished Walt Disney and his company from competitors in the 1930s. The diminishing returns of short animations that accompanied live action features motivated Disney to string together shorts into larger features, the first of which was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Entrepreneurial Walt was perpetually driven to consolidate the power of his production company and establish himself as a key figure in the Hollywood movie studio system that held reservations about the commercial potential of the cartoon. Throughout the 1920s and 30s the Disney studio had distinguished itself through a series of shrewd commercial moves that guaranteed early and exclusive access to the latest film technologies, including synchronised sound and Technicolor film. The early history of North American animation, from its origins on the East coast to its consolidation on the West, reads like a technological arms race. Thousands of drawings, filmed separately and then projected consecutively, gave the illusion of life. But how to maintain quality? How to eliminate irregularities, how to register each frame, how to subjugate each animator’s hand to the required style and still maintain the expediency of Fordist production? Such issues are characteristic across the history of animation, finding expression in the turmoil that surrounds the contemporary globalised special effects industry that grew exponentially under Disney’s tenure. So extraordinary is the effect of animation that conveys performance and personality, that it makes us forget the grinding labour of many hands coming together to turn a heap of drawings into cinematic art.

Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book was released in 1967 to great acclaim and popular appeal. This good reception broke the spell of a period of struggle for the studio that involved the so-so commercial and poor critical performance of The Sword in the Stone (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1963), the troubled production of The Jungle Book, and ultimately the death of Walt Disney to cancer in 1966. We associate the name of Disney with an unassailable global brand, but throughout the Golden Era of Hollywood animation in the 20s and 30s through to the late 60s the ubiquity of the Disney name did not necessarily correlate with financial returns. Disney’s perfectionism and insistence on the highest standards made for expensive productions that relied on healthy returns, at least until the parks were in the black. In the 1950s, Sleeping Beauty (Clyde Geronimi, 1959) epitomised the absolute commitment of Walt to the formal superiority of Disney animation, with stunning character animation gliding effortlessly over the divine geometries of background artist Eyvind Earle. But the film failed to make a return on the vast expense of production. Hundreds were needed to generate drawings that were traced and coloured by hand onto transparent cels.

In 1961 One Hundred and One Dalmatians was released. It brought together the stalwart Disney “story man” Bill Peet (a moniker so frequently emphasised by Disney over the more prosaic “writer”), who had been integral to the integrity and development of Disney animation, and the stewardship of veteran animator and director Wolfgang Reitherman. Adapted from the 1956 novel by Dodie Smith of the same name, the film was a huge commercial success for the studio, eschewing the fairytale formulas of the past in favour of a zanier contemporary story. The commercial viability of the film had its roots in a technical innovation. The studio had been experimenting for several years with the use of Xerox technology to transfer the drawn image to the cel and thus eliminate the need for 500 or so skilled tracers. By eliminating a huge swathe of payroll costs Walt could bring animation production in line and pull back from the baroque excesses of Sleeping Beauty.

The Xerox process (“xerography”) had been tentatively used in Sleeping Beauty but ultimately it was hand finished to bring it in line with the unsurpassed finesse of hand-inked line. In animation consistency is king, creating a horizon of expectation crucial to the believability and immersiveness of the animated world. In the process of figuring out how to implement xerography to an acceptable standard, the studio created Goliath II (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1960), a fourteen-minute short written by Peet. It tells the story of a miniature elephant who lives in the jungles of India. His father is the largest elephant in the land, but at his biggest he’s no bigger than dad’s toenail. Watching this short is instructive, because it amounts to something of a collage, drawing characters, gags and tropes from a variety of Disney material. Peter Pan’s crocodile, Dumbo’s mother, his mouse companion, all are plucked from their sources and implanted in this film that exists to test a technique. The lyrical arabesque of hand-inked lines were replaced with the chicken-scratch of Xeroxed drawings – suddenly roughness of drawing becomes a consideration in a way that it hadn’t been in Hollywood animation since the 1920s before Disney’s highest standards were achieved. The Xerox process demanded a different kind of drawing to make the most of new nervy line that broke the inscrutable illusion of Disney animation and reminded audiences of the centrality of drawing in the production of these stories.

Goliath II was more than a technical exercise, it reintroduced a gnarly and comedic Bengal tiger called Raja who first appeared in a 1945 Goofy cartoon Tiger Trouble, the elephant troupe, and the setting of the jungle. When Peet and Reitherman began their work on the production of The Jungle Book in 1963, several of the sight gags were already developed and the film clearly builds on the groundwork of Goliath II, both technically and aesthetically. The team of Peet and Reitherman had been crucial to the persistence of Disney animation at a time when the parks were the primary focus of Walt’s attention, but the relative failure of Sword in the Stone had drawn Walt back to the animation building to cast an eye over the production. Peet had conceived a rather brooding version of The Jungle Book that adapted closely Kipling’s 1894 original, but Walt hesitated and ultimately requested changes; Peet objected and walked.

The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book does not constitute a work of serious adaptation, and Walt actively dissuaded his crew from reading the work. The story is simple and flows from scene to scene on the back of tremendous characterisation. Instead it should be taken as the apogee of character animation under the direct influence of Walt Disney. Cuts to studio staff and further rationalisation of the process created circumstances in which Disney’s most veteran animators (referred to colloquially as “the nine old men”) were directly involved in the production of the great majority of the drawings, taking the lead on characters and labouring to create the memorable character performances. In a strange twist, Disney – who had done so much to escalate animation into an industry – resolved in his final film to approach the medium like a foreman organising the work of a gang of master craftsmen.

The Jungle Book is a ubiquitous animated film made memorable by the musical numbers scored by The Sherman Brothers and Terry Gilkyson. Like many Disney films, though we think we know it, when we watch it with a dedicated eye a certain strangeness emerges. For a musical that has so many fantastic tunes the film is noticeably quiet in the intermediary scenes. In this peace another theme emerges, one of sleep. A certain somnambulism hangs over the world of Baloo the bear and Mowgli, the kind of sophomoric daze that brackets periods of hyperactivity with self-satisfied slumber. The lack of foley for the fall of feet on the forest floor (or for much else really) serves to emphasise song and speech in relation to music. The tremendous sense of weight in the drawing and movement of each character contrasts with the levity and impressionism of the backgrounds of Al Dempster. Ken Anderson’s designs privilege a certain softness and bagginess, a bottom heaviness in which all the creatures of the jungle feel of the earth rather than sky. In contrast, Mowgli is weightless and bony in the special way only young boys and girls can be.

The Jungle Book is likely the greatest masterpiece of character performance in pencil animation. Ironically through production technique and winnowing budgets it is the film where we see the personalities of the great animators most lucidly – Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston performed as tiger, bear and boy – puncturing the depersonalised industry of animation with tremendous artistic individualism. The vocal performances of Sterling Holloway, Phil Harris and Louis Prima further amplify this tremendous “casting” by Walt Disney. At the end of the movie Mowgli wakes from the dream of jungle boyhood and steps into the human world. This threshold moment is followed by the bittersweet departure of Bagheera the panther and Baloo the bear back into the forest, a curtain call on the final film of Walt Disney himself and the achievements of 60 years of dedicated pencil animation.

About The Author

David Surman is an artist and filmmaker based in London.

Related Posts