You’ve no doubt seen Walt Disney’s animated masterpiece The Jungle Book, and perhaps you’ve even cracked open the pages of Rudyard Kipling’s original stories, but you’ve never experienced it like this before. Now through January 8th, 2023, the Walt Disney Family Museum invites visitors to literally step inside The Jungle Book in the limited-time special exhibit, “Walt Disney's The Jungle Book: Making a Masterpiece.” I was lucky enough to attend the opening night festivities where exhibit curator Andreas Deja (animator on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and many more) was joined by three very special guests who lent their talents to the film.
Keen-eyed visitors might note that many of the items in the gallery are from Andreas Deja’s personal collection. During a panel discussion, he shared that when Disney animators were receiving bonuses for the success of the Renaissance Era films, instead of buying a fancy car like his colleagues, he invested in collecting animation artwork. And since The Jungle Book was the first Disney film he ever saw as a child in Germany, it holds a very special place in his heart.
One of the most intriguing items on display isn’t a piece of art in the traditional sense, but a bound draft of Bill Peet’s script and story sketches. Bill Peet was a longtime writer at Disney and had great success as the sole writer on 101 Dalmatians, but his follow-up effort, The Sword in the Stone, was a commercial flop. When Walt Disney took a look at his adaptation of The Jungle Book, he deemed it too dark. A touch-screen experience next to this draft allows visitors to explore an unmade version of the film. Bill Peet left the studio over the story changes and budding animator Floyd Norman suddenly found himself working in the story department on the film. Walt’s edict: Don’t read the book.
First and second editions of Kipling’s books are on display, but Floyd Norman followed Walt’s advice and didn’t read them. He revealed that while he never met Bill Peet, being too shy to introduce himself, he would sneak into his office when the writer was out to lunch to take a look at his story drawings for The Jungle Book, which gave him a good understanding of what Walt Disney didn’t want when he was placed in the story department. As for how he got there in the first place, Norman thanks Xerox for making it possible to distribute gags he drew around the studio, with them eventually catching Walt’s attention. Among his story contributions was the scene in which Kaa the snake hypnotizes Mowgli.
As visitors explore the galleries, there are several interactive elements to try out. On the theme of Kaa, kids can interact with the snake and feel what it’s like to be hypnotized like Mowgli. Another special guest for the grand opening was Bruce Reitherman, who voiced Mowgli and is also the son of director Woolie Reitherman. He got misty eyed talking about how special the experience of working with his dad was. Rare photos of Bruce’s live-action reference footage for Mowgli are on display alongside animation sketches based on his movements.
Bruce shared memories of recording his lines for The Jungle Book, sharing that it wasn’t a small booth but a big orchestra scoring stage. A gallery of images from the voice recording sessions also houses an interactive feature where guests can try to overdub a sequence from the film. Clint Howard was a child actor when he provided the voice of Hathi, Jr. He couldn’t be present at the event due to a filming conflict, but he sent along a video message and revealed that he was very anxious about recording a song because he was tone deaf. Richard Sherman helped coach him through the song and during the recording session, he noticed a familiar silhouette from the engineer’s booth. During a break, Walt Disney stepped out to tell Clint he was doing a wonderful job. Clint was in disbelief over the interaction, and still is to this day.
Darleen Carr was the third special guest from the fllm, who sang “My Own Home” for The Girl (given the name of Shanti in The Jungle Book 2). Her experience on The Jungle Book felt at first like any other assignment. She had been signed to a contract at Disney and was being groomed as the studio’s next Hayley Mills, but was primarily focused on recording music. She was brought in to learn a song with The Sherman Brothers and remembers recording it a short while later. After Walt Disney passed away, her contract was dropped and she got steady work at other studios. It wasn’t until years later that she realized that little song was part of a movie that had come to be regarded as a classic. In a gallery devoted to The Girl, visitors can see a few photos of Darleen providing live-action reference for the song.
One of my favorite elements of the gallery is the way you get to see the characters evolve through the design process. It’s hard to imagine Baloo as anything other than grey, but lots of colors were explored.
One of the rare items on display is an early color test for Baloo that would’ve had him in shades of yellow.
Beyond production artwork, photos, marketing materials, and a display of merchandise tie-in items from the film’s initial release, there are also a few fun photo ops, including the chance to take a photo in King Louie’s throne!
As always, the gallery ties everything back to Walt Disney, concluding with a note about his passing. During the conversation, Andreas Deja shared that while Walt never saw the final film in full color, he had approved the final rough animated sequences before his passing. So in essence, he did get to see the film. And Floyd Norman said “The Jungle Book is truly Walt’s film.”
“Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book: Making a Masterpiece” is now on display in the Diane Disney Miller Exhibition Hall through January 8th, 2023. Visit waltdisney.org/junglebook for more information about operating hours and ticket pricing.