Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Discovering the Bear Necessities in The Jungle Book

With the new live-action-meets-CGI Jungle Book topping the worldwide box office,  it’s time to step back and remember what Disney wrought back in 1967, when the animated and musicalized version of Rudyard Kipling’s jungle tales was released. The 1967 film is known as the last animated feature personally supervised by Walt Disney himself, prior to his death on December 15, 1966. More so than the current version—which contains moments of genuine darkness that seek to entice older viewers—the 1967 Jungle Book is mostly light-hearted, crammed full of comedy and jazzy musical numbers.

One of the 1967 Jungle Book’s innovations was its use of well-known celebrities to provide voices for the animated characters. This tradition today permeates film animation: stars find purely vocal roles an easy paycheck, and enjoy participating in family-friendly projects they can show to their young children. Think of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in the Toy Story films, or of James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons in The Lion King (not to mention Robin  Williams in Aladdin) to realize the importance we place today on appealing and above all familiar voices. The current Jungle Book is no exception: its all-star cast features such Hollywood leading lights as Bill Murray (Baloo the Bear), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera the Panther), Idris Elba (the dangerous tiger Shere Khan), Scarlett Johansson (an insssinuating Kaa the Python), and none other than Christopher Walken as the king of the apes. Even the late Garry Shandling makes an appearance.

Neal Gabler, in his masterful biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, gives an account of how celebrity voices came to be used in the 1967 film. It seems Disney—preoccupied with his idea of building Florida’s EPCOT  Center—had little use for this particular film project. When he was finally persuaded to look in on what his animation staff was up to, he was not pleased. He found the story too sober, and the “man-cub” Mowgli not particularly appealing. As Gabler puts it, “despite his preoccupation with other projects and his lack of interest in this one, [Walt Disney] quickly salvaged the production, as he had done so many times in the past, by suggesting that singer Phil Harris, known for his loose, boozy, throwaway style, voice a bear named Baloo who befriends Mowgli.” Disney loved Phil Harris’s test track, and was soon full of ideas about how this lively character could help transform the project. Here’s Gabler once again: “The bear, who had been intended as a minor figure, became the film’s co-star, converting the picture from a series of disconnected adventures into the story of a boy and his hedonistic mentor—a jungle Hal and Falstaff.”

All of this might be correct, but years ago I heard a slightly different tale from Hal Smith, a versatile comic actor known to some as Otis Campbell, the town drunk, on the Andy Griffith Show. Hal was an experienced voice-actor, who’d worked for Disney on a Winnie the Pooh short. When he came in to audition for Baloo’s role in  The Jungle Book, he decided to speak in the magnolias-and-husbpuppies style of Phil Harris. The Disney folk thought this was brilliant -- and promptly went out and hired Harris. Soon, such celebrity voice talent as Louis Prima were added to the mix, and were given prominent musical numbers so as to show off their musical chops. (Prima played – with panache -- a scat-singing ape, King Louie.) Thus a new approach to animation was born. Unfortunately for Hal Smith, he suffered from the rule of unintended consequences. He never worked for Disney again.

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