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Revisiting The Jungle Book
Revisiting The Jungle Book

Film restoration has made many strides in the past few years, but the realm of animation has remained generally overlooked. Disney, with its rich catalog of animated features, is the perfect studio to correct this situation. And to that end, a restored and remixed version of The Jungle Book premiered this past week at Disney's El Capitan theater, in anticipation of the October 2nd release of the Platinum Edition DVD. I was lucky enough to attend the inaugural screening, complete with a filmmakers' panel.

For those who haven't been to the El Capitan, it's an impressive Hollywood landmark. Made up in an expansive cathedral style, it's the definition of showmanship. After making it through the lobby, you find yourself in the open but intimate main auditorium. In the front of the stage sits Rob Richards, the American Theatre Organ Society's 2005 organist of the year, playing, what else? That's right, he's sitting at an organ, playing a medley of classic Disney songs. There's buzz in the air. This isn't just a press event, it's the opening night of a limited theatrical run. There are families present, parents who probably saw the film 40 years prior with their parents, taking their kids to see the movie that enchanted them all those years ago.

The beautiful and historic El Capitan Theater.

After Rob finishes and descends with the organ under the stage, the night's MC, Don Hahn, producer of such Disney classics as Who Framed Roger Rabbit (billed as associate producer), Beauty and the Beast (the only animated feature ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award), and The Lion King, came out with a big smile on his face. He was clearly enthused to be welcoming the guest panel, many of them participants in the film who hadn't seen each other since 1967. We got Bruce Reitherman, the voice of Mowgli, Darleen Carr, the voice of Shanti (aka the girl from the Man Village), Andreas Deja, a veteran animator who has worked on many Disney films, Chad Stuart of the musical group Chad and Jeremy who voiced Flaps The Vulture, and Richard Sherman, composer of several instantly classic Disney songs, including "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and "It's A Small World After All." An excellent group by anybody's standards.

Hahn opened the discussion with Reitherman, pointing out that Bruce's father actually was the director of the film. A projector showed pictures of Bruce working with his father in the recording studio on the screen behind the group. Bruce talked about how they shot live footage of him to use as a model when animating Mowgli. Hahn then moved to Deja, showing pictures of several of the characters and the actors who voiced them. Hahn asked Deja if animators always use aspects of the voice actors for the animations of the characters, to which Deja replied, "It's less important to make the character look like the actor, and more important that the audience feel the voice is actually coming out of the character in question."

Our host, Don Hahn.

Moving over to Darleen Carr, she revealed that her sister was one of the children in The Sound of Music, and that Darleen was recorded to touch-up a lot of the voices in that film. She related a story about how Walt Disney was looking for a replacement for Haley Mills as she began to grow up. Darleen auditioned for him and he signed her on the spot. Richard Sherman then jumped in and said the reason she played the girl in the movie was because as he and his brother were writing the song for the character, they wanted a female voice so they could demo it for Walt. They asked her to sing on it, and she did. They played the demo for Walt, and he liked it, but didn't dwell on it. Months later, when it came time to actually record the song for the film, Richard asked Walt who he wanted to sing on it. Walt replied, "You already have your singer. Darleen was perfect for it." And so, she got the job.

In fact, Richard was full of fun anecdotes like that. The best was a story of how he convinced Louis Prima to play King Louis the baboon. He and his brother flew all the way out to Las Vegas and saw Louis and his band performed. He was shocked by how wild the band was, running around the stage and into the audience, joking with each other as they played, and pulling all kinds of crazy antics. After seeing this absolutely manic performance, Richard went back into their tiny, cramped dressing room and played the King Louis song on a tiny piano. Louis and the band sat and listened stoically to each note. At the end of it, Louis looked Richard right in the eye and said, "Are you trying to make a monkey out of me?" Richard looked him right back and said, "No, I'm trying to make a baboon out of you." Louis then cracked into a smile and said, "Well, you did it!" And the whole band went nuts, because they loved the song. This was followed by footage of Prima and his band recording the song at Disney studios, acting just as uncivilized and hilariously as Richard had described. A definite highlight of the night.

Composer Richard Sherman was on hand to detail what it was like to work with Walt Disney.

Chad Stuart said he got the job of voicing Flaps The Vulture because he was alive and had a British accent. Apparently, when he auditioned, he did his best "Peter Sellers playing an Indian" imitation, but he was stopped and told to "sound like a Beatle" instead. He also mentioned that while he was known the world over as part of a pop music duo, he did not sing in the song that the four vultures have in the film. Richard expressed some surprise at that, saying, "They certainly got someone who sounds a lot like you!" Around this time Hahn declared that while they could go on all night, it was time for the film. But first, we were treated to live musical performances by Chad Stuart, who played "Summer Song", as well as Richard Sherman, who played a medley of pieces he had written for Disney, including the theme to "Winnie The Pooh" and "It's A Small World After All," which had the whole audience singing along.

The film itself has held up fairly well. It's certainly got one of Disney's weakest plots, often feeling aimless at times (heck, the song "Bear Necessities" is pretty much about doing nothing at all), but its sheer charm pulls it through. It helps that the voice acting is all top notch. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about the animation. I was genuinely shocked that the world's foremost animation studio made such a rough-looking film. Thick, rough black animation lines show up as the character's move, disappearing just a few frames later. This is not due to the degradation that has occurred that the remaster fixed, this was part of the way it was originally drawn. The sound was not in as good of a shape as the film, and even with a new 5.1 remix, it still sounded tinny and thin. So it's not perfect, but the experience was still enjoyable enough. Anyone who's a fan of the film should be plenty pleased with the Platinum Edition.

Character sketches like these were just some of the material we got to see, and most of it should be on the upcoming Platinum Edition DVD set.

-Daniel Hirshleifer


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