By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com October 18, 2012 at 11:03AM
All wrapped up in gorgeous animation that still looks great close to a half-century on, the film has a vibrant, loose feel, partly achieved by the glorious music, which features classic songs like "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wan'na Be Like You." Originally, songwriter Terry Gilkyson had been brought on to write the music, but along with Peet's contributions, they were mostly found to be too dark, and Walt Disney excised most of his work -- with the exception of one song, "The Bare Necessities," which saw him win an Oscar nomination. Disney favorites the Sherman Brothers (who penned the songs for "Mary Poppins" -- watch for them being played by Jason Schwartzmann and B.J. Novak in next year's "Saving Mr. Banks") were brought on to pen the rest.
The music also showcases another innovation of the film, for better or worse -- it's almost the first time that quote-unquote celebrity voices became intrinsic to the process. Disney had flirted with the use of well-known actors in the past ("The Time Machine" star Rod Taylor voiced Pongo in "101 Dalmatians," for instance), but for the most part the voiceover cast tended to be little-known specialists, often drawn from the same pool. But alongside Disney regulars like Sebastian Cabot (as Bagheera) and Sterling Holloway (as Kaa) in "The Jungle Book" were more famous faces -- radio legend and musician Phil Harris lending his warm, laid back presence as Baloo, British character actor George Sanders as Shere Khan (who was also modelled on the actor's likeness), and perhaps most memorably of all, jazz star Louis Prima as King Louie. Prima's band would go on to re-record the film's songs for a secondary soundtrack album to the film (hear below).
And Prima wasn't the only musician courted by Disney -- the producer met with Brian Epstein in 1965 hoping to woo The Beatles, then at the height of their fame, to voice the Vultures in the film and sing their song "That's What Friends Are For." Reportedly, it was John Lennon who nixed the idea -- he was already ambivalent about the ABC "The Beatles" cartoon series that started airing the same year, and screamed at Epstein, "There’s no way The Beatles are gonna sing for Mickey fucking Mouse. You can tell Walt Disney to fuck off. Tell him to get Elvis off his fat arse, he’s into making crap fucking movies.”
The Vultures' musical number was adapted into a barbershop tune, but the characters retain Liverpudlian accents, voiced by fellow Merseybeat artist Chad Stuart, of Chad & Jeremy, radio DJ Lord Tim Hudson, actor/writer Digby Wolfe and Disney veteran J. Pat O'Malley. One other actor to listen out for -- a young Clint Howard (brother of Ron), who voices baby elephant Junior, while original Mowgli David Alan Bailey was replaced when his voice broke, with director Wolfgang Reitherman casting his own son Bruce in his place (the younger Reitherman would go on to become the director of nature documentaries).
After overcoming so many hurdles, a further shadow was cast over the production on December 15th, 1966, when Walt Disney passed away, only six weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer caused by his life-long smoking habit. "The Jungle Book" would be the last Disney animated feature to be personally overseen by the studio's founder. Ten months later, almost to the day, the film hit theaters, and proved to be a giant success. And thanks to three re-releases over the decades, it still stands as the 30th biggest-grossing film of all time, when adjusted for inflation, making the equivalent of $590 million at the U.S. box office. Despite Peck's campaigning, the film was excluded from the Best Picture field at the Academy Awards, and was even beaten to Best Song by mega-flop "Doctor Dolittle."
Unsurprisingly, Disney have gone back to the well a few times, never entirely successfully. A year after release, an album, More Jungle Book was released that continued the story, and more recently, a vastly inferior official film sequel "The Jungle Book 2" (with Haley Joel Osment as Mowgli and John Goodman as Baloo) was produced by Disney's direct-to-video label DisneyToons, somehow managing a theatrical re-release. Future "The Mummy" director Stephen Sommers directed a more respectable live-action remake for the studio, starring Jason Scott Lee, Cary Elwes, Sam Neill, John Cleese and a young Lena Headey in 1994, while the same period saw characters from the animated film crop up in two animated series -- 1990s bonkers but fondly remembered "TaleSpin," which melds Baloo and co. with Howard Hawks' "Only Angels Have Wings" for some reason, and the more traditional, "Muppet Babies"-style "Jungle Cubs." But the varying degrees of quality of the spin-offs can, quite frankly, never hold a candle to the original.