Every person between the ages of 2 and 100 has their own views on which is the greatest of the animated Disney films. One of the pioneering originals like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" or "Dumbo?" A seminal '50s-era fairy tale like "Alice In Wonderland" or "Sleeping Beauty?" Something undersung from the 1970s like "The Rescuers" or "Robin Hood?" One of the films from the early 1990s revival like "Aladdin" or "The Lion King?" Or a modern-day Pixar insta-classic like "The Incredibles" or "Up"?
Almost everyone will have their own answer, but if you were to ask me, I wouldn't have to think about for a second: it's clearly 1967's "The Jungle Book," the last Disney animated film to feature Walt Disney's direct input, and a joyous, vibrant, scary and moving adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's classic adventure stories. Released 45 years ago today, on October 18th 1967 (just shy of a year after Walt's passing) the film might mark something of the end of an era, but it also saw the Disney formula perfected. And none other than Gregory Peck, then the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fought to get an Oscar nomination for the film (unsuccessfully, causing Peck to eventually resign his position).
But we could have come close to a very different movie. It originally came to pass after Disney legend Bill Peet, after finishing work on 1963's "The Sword in the Stone," suggested to Walt Disney that they work on a project that used more animals, and that that film should be an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book." Disney gave him the thumbs up to start writing, but the book proved a tough nut to crack -- it's an episodic collection of fables, not all of which focus on the central human character Mowgli. Furthermore, it's an unsparing, sometimes tough piece of work, and while Peet managed to wrangle the narrative into a more coherent form (inventing the character of King Louie the orangutan along the way), his take was closer to Kipling's original, with all the violence and the darkness that might suggest.
Walt, already unimpressed with Peet after "The Sword in the Stone" underperformed with critics, rejected the script, and when Peet wouldn't compromise, he left Disney after 25 years with the company (he never worked on another film again). Disney brought on longtime employee Larry Clemmons in his place to head up the story department, along with Ralph Wright, Ken Anderson and Vance Gerry, for a version that departed from the source material (Disney supposedly gave Clemons a copy of the book while telling him "The first thing I want you to do is not to read it"). Disney encouraged them to keep the narrative simple, and played a key part in shaping the structure and story of the film -- for what would turn out to be the last time.
What they came up with might be softened, but it's hardly without edge. In the film, Mowgli is an orphan boy taken in and raised by a wolf, aided by the assistance of black panther Bagheera. But when the demonic Bengal tiger Shere Khan returns to the jungle, they must journey to take Mowgli back to the village, as they encounter characters including take-it-easy bear Baloo, sinister snake Kaa, and the human-envying orangutan King Louie.
And, while we'll never know how Peet's darker take would have been, the finished film is a marvel. Fitting in an amazing amount for a film that runs at a lean 78 minutes, from elephant parades to intimate emotion, it's perhaps not the strongest Disney narrative, but it's able to encompass thrilling action sequences, genuinely funny comedy tangents, frightening villains, and one of the most touching and emotional backbones in the animated canon -- Mowgli's search for somewhere he feels at home, and his relationship with surrogate parents Bagheera and Baloo (whose attempt to save his charge from Shere Khan at the end never fails to have us sobbing).