A Study in Disney: ‘The Jungle Book’ (1967)

| December 19, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Tumblrful World Of Disney — The Jungle Book, 1967

The Jungle Book was the last film that Walt Disney personally supervised – he passed away during its production on December 15, 1966.  Much of the love and care that went into this film came from his input and also much of the very Disney re-interpretation.  By the time The Jungle Book went into production, Walt had become exasperated with animation and turned his sights on his theme parks, his live-action films and on his television show.  He had stepped away from the production of One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone to work on other projects (particularly Mary Poppins), but when Stone underperformed at the box office, he decided to devote more time to the screenplay of The Jungle Book, which he would supervise with story man Bill Peet.  This may explain why this film feels a little more focused.  The previous two films felt like a nice day off, a nice way of putting out something that was more laid back.  The Jungle Book is just as laid back, the difference being that this time you can really feel Walt Disney’s hands on it.

One of Walt’s most significant contributions was to lighten the load on the story.  Rudyard Kipling’s stories had taken on a darker tone that Disney was concerned would not be suitable for a family picture.  This did not sit well with screenwriter Bill Peet, who wanted to retain the book’s darker and edgier man-verses-nature themes.  He had borrowed elements from different stories in Kipling’s very episodic book and wanted it to maintain a feeling of the raw power of the jungle.  Heads clashed and ultimately Disney and Peet could not come together on the story, so Peet – who had been with the studio since the end of development on Snow White – left the studio permanently in January of 1964.

Disney’s vision was to simply have fun with the meat of the story, to draw from the better parts of the book’s stories and focus on the more interesting characters.  His film is gentle and simplistic, but not to the detriment of the experience.  As an adaptation, it lacks some much needed tension.  As a Disney film, it works because it is so calm, cool and laid-back.

The magic of The Jungle Book is its simplicity.  There is no hurried agenda here and much of the character motivation (largely aimed at Basheer getting Mowgli back to the man-village before he can be devoured by Sher Kahn) has time to stop for a moment, relax and take time to simply allow the characters to be together.  Of the Disney animated features released in the 1960s, this one is closer to the tone of One Hundred and One Dalmatians than to the goofy bombast of The Sword and the Stone.  The music is kept to a minimum so there are quiet moments, giving the film a rested quality.  This is a bone of contention for some who argue that the film’s leisure tone robs it of any measure of real excitement.  Is it?  Does it need to be a comedy roller coaster?  Given the characters, the plot and setting, it is hard to imagine it that way.

The other great element to The Jungle Book are the characters.  Each is drawn with broad outlines, but each is drawn with specific broad outlines that fit the story in a functional way.  Everyone has a specific motivation whether it be nefarious, as with Kaa the Python and Shear Kahn the Tiger; or just plain strange as with King Louie the orangutan who somehow believes that learning to make fire will propel him up the evolutionary ladder.  And there are even non-sequiturs with The Dawn Patrol, a pack of elephants who act as an ersatz military squad, or the Beatle-inspired vultures whose main motivation is that they can’t decide on how to get motivated.

The significant elements are Baloo the Bear and Bagheera the Panther who act as parental figures to Mowgli.  Each wants something different but are on opposite ends of the spectrum.  Baloo wants to have fun with the kid, but Basheer wants him to be responsible.  This is where the elements of Kipling and Disney come to a combined understanding.  Baloo is a character representative of Disney’s desire for a more fun and laid-back tone to the picture; and Basheer represents the darker and more focused plot-driven desire to get Mowgli back to civilization.  It is a lovely compromise.

Over-arching the motivation of the characters is the presence of a particularly strong villain.  It was a masterstroke that we never actually see the bloody trail of Sher Kahn’s legacy. It is only spoken about – a local mythology built out of words and gossip.  He is off-screen for much of the movie and so by the time we actually meet him, we’ve heard the stories and the rumors.  That adds greatly to his presence and makes him a much larger threat than if his killing spree were visualized.  Again, the environment and the dialogue combine to tell the story rather than a lot of raucous action.  Yes, there’s a threat hanging over Mowgli but he’s not constantly running for his life.

In a lot of ways the sweet gentility of The Jungle Book is the perfect example of what Walt Disney tried to accomplish all of his life, an entertainment that comes from laughter and fun rather than from phrenetic cacophony.  One by-product of his phenomenal success was the inevitable scholarly and journalistic exploration of his magic formula.  “There is no magic formula”, he said, “I just make what I like, warm and human, and ones about historic characters and events, and about animals.  If there’s a secret I guess its that I never make the pictures too childish, but I always try to get in a little satire of adult foibles.”  In a lot of ways, this describes The Jungle Book to a tee.

Disney built his company on a standard of excellence, of branding his product with a set of expectations.  He was tight-fisted about the content of his work so that the elements of the brand remained intact.  That’s the reason that the quality remained throughout his life and part of the reason that it remained on shaky ground in the two decades following his death.


While The Jungle Book was still in production, Walt Disney died somewhat unexpectedly in December of 1966 at the age of 65.  By most reports Walt had been a heavy smoker since World War I, but he tried to shield that information from the public.  In the wake of his death, the company that he founded would obviously flourish, but over the next two decades it would struggle to find an identity for itself.  Walt had such a hold on the basic functions of his company that it was hard for those left behind to decide how to proceed without him – and this confusion went on for two decades.  In that time, the company’s product – live action and animated – was largely sub-par kiddie fare, Tim Conway western parodies and Herbie movies.  The animated output that Disney’s company would provide over the next decade was based largely on projects that Walt had approved just before his death.  They are harmless and cute but nothing that really rose to the greatness that helped to make Disney’s name into a legend.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.