Saving the Movie

Richard Sherman, Bruce Reitherman and myself. All the rest are gone. The animators, layout artists, background painters, musicians and voice talent of Walt Disney’s animated classic, “The Jungle Book” are no longer with us. Sadly, the Old Maestro himself never lived to see the finished motion picture. Walt Disney passed away a few weeks after we had wrapped the story. 

Back in early nineteen sixty six, it was already common knowledge that Walt Disney was not exactly delighted with Bill Peet’s adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling novel. Color stylist, Walt Peregoy had already been given the boot when Walt expressed his displeasure with the movie’s background styling. Now Walt focused on the dozens of storyboards Peet had created over the past two years. The moody sensibility of Bill Peet’s story line caused Disney to mutter something totally unexpected. “It reminds me of Batman,” Walt grumbled. Was Walt Disney a closet fan of the Dark Knight, we wondered? Anyway, it was not exactly an endorsement of Bill Peet’s adaptation. Things were hardly rosy between Bill and Walt. Peet’s latest film, an adaptation of T.H. White’s novel, “The Sword in the Stone” had stumbled at the box office and Peet had been given carte blanche on the movie. Not about to let this happen again, Disney ordered changes. Rather than change the tone of the story, Bill Peet decided to head out the door.

Walt Disney’s displeasure with Rudyard Kipling’s novel, “The Jungle Book” was hardly something that concerned me. After all, I wasn’t even on the picture. Whatever problems that had to be worked out were certainly no concern of mine. I had what I considered an animation dream job working for my favorite animator. Even better, I worked in my private office in coveted, D-Wing where no one bothered me. I do not exaggerate when I say I was living the dream. The dream ended late one Friday afternoon when my boss, Andy Engman called me into his office over in B-Wing. “Sorry to get this news to you so late,” explained Andy. “But, you’ll need to pack up your office because we’re moving you upstairs to 2-C. Why would I be going to 2-C, I wondered? That’s the directorial wing of Wolfgang Reitherman. That’s the headquarters of the feature film, “The Jungle Book.” Why the heck would I be moving up there? Andy Engman quickly answered the question before I could even ask. “You’re going to be working on “The Jungle Book” with Woolie, Andy replied. I confess I was so shocked, I could not even think of any further questions. I headed back to my D-wing office and began to pack. Why was I going to story, I wondered? The story department at Disney was a pretty big deal, and many had tried to break into story without much success. Now, I had been given a job I never even requested much less tested for. There were procedures and protocols in place. Even then, an assignment in Walt’s story department was no guarantee. How the heck had I managed to leap over the many requirements? Why had nobody dared questioned my qualifications? It would take somebody truly important to make this happen. It was then, I suddenly realized I had answered my own question.

Monday morning, I arrived in 2-C on the second floor of the Animation Building and sat down at my new desk. In true Disney story fashion, my desk was butted up against another where my story partner, Vance Gerry would be working. Thankfully, I had known Mr. Gerry for a few years, so he was hardly a stranger. Vance was wearing his characteristic saddle shoes and had a wool sweater tied over his shoulders, preppy style. He seemed absorbed in his newspaper, and work appeared to be the last thing on his mind. Naturally, I was apprehensive and somewhat nervous. After all, this was my first day in Walt Disney’s coveted story department, and I do not hesitate when I admit I didn’t know what the hell I was doing there. I grabbed a stack of story pads and a handful of grease pencils because I knew that Walt Disney loved story sketches that were broad, bold and not fussy. I looked over at my laid back partner for some sign of what to do next. “Vance, What exactly are we supposed to do” I inquired? Vance Gerry casually lowered his newspaper with a wry smile on his face and said, 

“We’re gonna save the movie.”

This guy slithered into my life fifty years ago. Actually, it seems like yesterday.

This guy slithered into my life fifty years ago. Actually, it seems like yesterday.