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Toon Tuesday: Taking a wild ride on the "Jungle Book" express

Toon Tuesday: Taking a wild ride on the "Jungle Book" express

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The other evening, a pal who works for an animation studio that shall remain nameless was telling me about the project he was developing. It was great news to hear he had garnered the attention of the studio bosses and was moving into development on his new movie. But I couldn't but think how things have changed in the cartoon business.

People constantly tell me how much "The Jungle Book" impressed them. We thought it
was okay. But this movie made a ton of movie back in 1967 and helped save
animation at Disney. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Movie projects today tend to have lengthy development cycles and your youngest child could easily grow up while you're working on a movie. If you're lucky, you might even be pulling down a sizable paycheck while doing so. How did I miss out on the sweet process I've come to characterize as "the animation gravy train?"

My first story job on an animated feature film was a totally different experience. We didn't have multi-million dollar budgets nor did we have years of development. Back in the olden days, work had to be done and done quickly. Honestly, that's the way it was.

Of course, being a newbie to story development I didn't know any different. When you do this job for the first time you simply assume that's the way it's always been done.

Storyboard drawings that Bill Peet did for the version of "The Jungle Book" that he was
developing for the Studio. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

When the Old Maestro, Walt Disney expressed dissatisfaction with Bill Peet's version of Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book," he wanted the entire story retooled. Plus he wanted the new story completed in record time. The new story team quickly jumped on the project to see what we could salvage from the previous version. Unfortunately, there wasn't much. At least not much as far as Walt Disney was concerned. That meant we had to start building new storyboards and building them fast.

Because of the rapid turnarounds there was no time to over-think a sequence. You simply jumped on it and made it work. Should you take a wrong turn, the Boss (who happened to be an excellent story editor himself) put you back on track. Our turnaround time was less than a year. Keep in mind this was a feature film that is now considered by many to be a classic.

Today, I can't help but wonder why development on an animated feature film takes so long? To be sure, the process is not an easy one. This is something I'm well aware of having done it a good portion of my career. You can bet there will be false starts and wrong turns. One sequence that often plays well may be followed by a "train wreck." Of course, when you fix the "train wreck" that means the preceding sequence will have to be rewritten as well. When Walt starts to arch his eyebrow and tap his finger, you could very well find yourself in bigger trouble. Such are the joys of story development in the big time.

This is Walt Disney scowling at our "Jungle Book" storyboards. The Boss wanted this film
turned around quickly. Because of time constraints, we didn't have the luxury of over-
thinking every sequence. But that limitation wound up being a blessing

We took the wild ride back in 1966, and we did so with the Boss nipping at our heels. We never gave any thought to failing in this important assignment. At the 1960s version of Disney Studios, it would appear that failure was not an option. Especially when the guy you had to please was Walt Disney.

Of course, we had another important advantage. We didn't have to ask the question "What would Walt want?" The Old Maestro made it quite clear what he wanted. We simply had to deliver. After all, it was our butts that were on the line.

1966 is a long time ago, and I look back fondly on that wild ride on the "Jungle Book" express. I'm grateful I was chosen to take the ride and it was probably the most important story assignment I've had in my career.

Vance Gerry and I thought that we'd do some silly stuff with the kid and the snake.
Thankfully, Walt thought that it was funny and asked for more.

However, I can't help but be somewhat envious of today's story development process. An assignment where you're often given ample time and money to fine tune a project. After screaming down the tracks at breakneck speed I'd love to - just once - take that long, slow ride on the animation "gravy train."

Did you enjoy today's look back at how Disney's "The Jungle Book" actually came together? Well, if you'd like to learn more about the many amazing & amusing adventures that this Disney Legend has had over the course of the 40+ years that he's worked in the animation industry, then you definitely want to check out some of the books which Mr. Norman has written.

Floyd's most recent effort - "Disk Drive: Animated Humor in the Digital Age" - is available for purchase through blurb.com. While Mr. Norman's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" - is still for sale over at John Cawley's Cataroo. And if you still haven't had your fill of Floyd, feel free to move on over to Mr. Fun. Which is where Mr. Norman posts his musings when he's not writing for JHM.

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  • This is and I think always will be my favorite film of the "Walt-era."  At least so far as animation goes.  That is not to say I don't enjoy other films made during Walt Disney's tenure, but this one is special.

  • As someone who works in the industry, I'm willing to bet that the "wild ride" is exactly why the movie was so successful. Today's long development process more often than not ends up producing a film with a pablum story that has had all of the real heart taken out of it. The same is true of the iterative process of advanced screenings that frequently "dumbs down" the story to the lowest common denominator of the audience.

    The day is long gone for the majority of studios when they could make the movies they want to make. Instead they are busy making the movies they believe the audiences want to see, and frequently missing the mark.

  • This movie came out when I was 9-years-old and I loved it.  Love the story about the man-cub raised by his animal family, loved the songs.  Shere Kahn and King Louie were wonderfully conceived villains.  And Mowgli's wonderfully perplexed reaction to the flirtatious girl at the end pretty much matched my feelings at the time.

  • The complaints above don't seem to apply to Pixar movies. Am I wrong?

    MOST of their concepts wouldn't make it past the storyboard stages if that was true. A mostly silent film about a robot on a humanless planet. A movie where the main character and the main villian are senior citizens. A movie with a rat chef.

  • If you believe the "making of" stories we hear from Pixar, it sounds more like their films were nothing but a series of train wrecks. They'd start off in a certain direction, crash at a certain  point, then pick up whatever pieces that survived the wreck and used them to build the next version of the film. After a couple of wrecks, more and more pieces survived until they were able to put together a successful film.  

    I kinda doubt the Pixar folks had unlimited time and money to go through this process, but maybe compared to the way the Old Mousetro ran things, it seemed that way to Floyd when he worked there.

  • My friend tried to show the Jungle Book to her two year old twins.  They saw the baby go into the cave followed by the wolves, then Mowgli comes out of the cave followed by the wolves.  The kids were horrified, as they had thought the wolves ate the baby, since the baby never came out of the cave.

  • I'd be curious to see, Mr. Norman, if you have a theory as to how and why things wound up they way they are regarding movie development. I sincerely doubt that today's studio heads are any LESS penny-pinching (or even money-grubbing) than Walt Disney was, but yet we know that too many projects (animated and otherwise) spend astronomical amounts of cash well before the filming actually begins, which only serves to push up their budgets.

  • Film projects these days make long turns and your teen can simple grow though working on a movie. If you are lucky, you may even be able to earn a lot of income while doing so. I got best essay from her. How did I miss out on the fun process that I came to describe as "a sports train?"

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  • I like it! Thanks for sharing this post, it bring me to my childhood! ^^

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