Much like the screening back in 1967, I chose to view the Walt Disney motion picture in a theater with a regular audience. Even though studio screenings were optional, I’ve always made this choice when watching a Disney movie. Studio staffers are regular people, of course. However, they are “insiders.” Much like Walt, I preferred a real audience in order to gauge the movie. After Walt Disney’s passing in 1966 I had kept my distance from the Burbank studio and preferred to see the film at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. I had met a lovely young woman, and that evening she was my date for the Disney movie. I thought she might be impressed once she found out I had worked on the film. However, in my personal thoughts, the days of classic Disney had come an end with Sleeping Beauty and nothing after would ever rise to that level. Yet, as we sat watching the film I began to have second thoughts. Could this animated movie be good after all?
I still find it odd that the Disney motion picture that most defines my career at the Mouse House would be the one movie I actively tried to avoid. Yet, fate took a hand and the unthinkable happened. The master storyteller I admired most decided to leave the film. This unexpected turn of events launched my career in Walt’s story department and the opportunity to work with the Old Maestro himself. 2016 is a long way from 1966 and as I watched Jon Favreau’s live-action adaptation this weekend I couldn’t help but be amazed how well this motion picture continues to play. The current Disney movie is not so much a faithful adaptation of Rudyard Kipling as it is a live-action remake of the movie we crafted back in the spring of 1966 when Walt Disney demanded a rewrite of the Bill Peet storyline. The story beats are all there as we follow little Mowgli the man cub through his jungle adventures. It’s a story that always resonates, even when I was just a kid. This goes all the way back to the initial adaptation by Alexander and Zoltan Korda in the forties. A movie filled with danger and darkness. Mystery and magic along with vibrant colors that lept off the screen. This was a Jungle Book story that continued to live in my mind no matter how old I became.
As you can imagine, Walt Disney was having none of that. “Enough with the mystery and darkness,” shouted the boss. “I want a movie that’s light and full of fun. I want music that kids and adults will leave the theatre humming.” I didn’t know much in those days but I did know one thing. I knew Walt Disney didn’t want Rudyard Kipling. He wanted a Disney movie. The memories from those days are a continuing delight. The opportunity to work with Woolie Reitherman as our director. To have an amazing story partner such as Vance Gerry and work with the stellar songwriter team of Robert and Richard Sherman. However, joy is often mixed with sorrow. We were delighted we had completed story work on the film and put a smile on Walt Disney’s face. However, we had no idea we were going to lose our leader only a few weeks later. Once Walt had passed on, I avoided the Disney studio and couldn’t bring myself to attend any studio screenings of The Jungle Book.
1966 is a long time ago, and the motion picture we saw this weekend can be called a tribute to Walt Disney and the talented team that made the original film so many years ago. Director, Jon Favreau managed to create his own film, yet pay honor to the Disney classic we created. I honestly believe Walt would have liked this motion picture and the amazing technology required to make it. Remember, Walt loved gadgets, gizmos and technological innovation. He would have had a ball making this film. The Jungle Book, old and new remains a delight for audiences young and old, and hopefully will stand the test of time. As for myself, I’m totally satisfied. Well, perhaps one thing might have been more fun. Way back in 1966 I was lucky enough to be on the recording stage with the wonderful, Sterling Holoway as he recorded the voice of Kaa the Python. Could I do that one more time, perhaps? This time with Scarlett Johansson?