Curator Conversations: Andreas Deja on
Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book: Making a Masterpiece

Posted on Wed, 09/28/2022 - 14:26

The Walt Disney Family Museum is pleased to present its newest special exhibition, Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book: Making a Masterpiece, in celebration of the beloved animated classic’s 55th anniversary. Join Bri Bertolaccini, Marketing Manager, for a conversation with our Guest Curator: acclaimed animator and Disney Legend Andreas Deja.

Andreas Deja; courtesy of The Walt Disney Family Museum

BB: The exhibition features many animation artworks from your personal collection. How did you amass such a large collection?

AD: I do have some cel set-ups, but I have a lot more drawings. People might wonder, “How did you get these, and why doesn't Disney have them?” The [Walt] Disney Animation Research Library generally didn’t keep the rough animation drawings; they mostly only kept the assistant cleanup drawings. Once in a while, when an animator drew particularly tight and on-model, they would use that rough drawing but put a clean-up line on top of the same sheet so that rough drawing is still there. That clean line on top (is) called “process touch-up.” On the whole, the rough animation drawings were not kept. They were either—believe it or not—thrown out or animators took them home because they knew that they wouldn't be stored.

Frank [Thomas] and Ollie [Johnston] kept quite a few—not as much as you would think (considering) that they had done this for 35 years. They kept quite a few from The Jungle Book (1967) especially. I was able to make a deal with them and purchased their so-called “drawing estates.” A lot of those drawings you see in the exhibition were what Frank and Ollie had kept. They also had kept some design drawings from Milt Kahl who was the artist who gave the final look to all of the characters and did drawings over everybody's scenes to make sure that they looked consistent throughout the film. They kept those drawings too, so, lucky me again!

I have this inventory now to share and that's the whole idea. That's why I'm so glad that I have been working with The [Walt Disney Family] Museum. I've looked through them many, many times or I looked through them on birthdays and Christmas but that's just not enough. There is too much in this world that needs to be shared. To have an outlet like The [Walt] Disney Family Museum, it is just so thrilling to me that this can be shared with many people who have access to this now and can see it, appreciate it, and can get inspired by it. That is really awesome.

BB: It is great to know exactly who drew each drawing and to see the rough sketches. In the book for example, it will say “Disney Studio Artist,” because we don't know who the artist is. It's really amazing to be able to identify which exact hand was able to draw these scenes.

AD: The fun part is that for people who really want to study animation and then look for drawings that Frank Thomas did or look for drawings that Ollie Johnston did, you find different personalities in these drawings. People think like, “Oh, everybody working at Disney has to draw the Disney way.” I mean, yes and no. You draw in a way that allows you to be expressive. You draw eyes a certain way or you draw fur a certain way to be effective on the screen, but everybody had their own individual drawing style. You can see how they struggled, even how much they erased before they were happy with a certain figure or a certain pose. You can even see on the left side of the paper—because most artists were right-handed so they flipped with their left hand—you can see how wrinkled the left side of the paper is. Frank Thomas' drawings are a lot more wrinkled than Ollie's, for example. He just kept on checking and rechecking and redoing and erasing. He messed with it more while Ollie had more of an intuitive touch and drew very lightly. He just had that, the inner gut feeling, about character and about drawing in general. Different temperaments coming through. I find that really fascinating because to me as a professional animator, it makes them human. These are not superhumans who were the only ones who can do this. They all have their own path towards getting the best result onto the screen, and I find that endlessly fascinating.

BB: During your time putting together this exhibition and catalog, what was your favorite story to emerge from the research and were you surprised by anything you discovered in particular about The Jungle Book (1967)?

AD: Well, you might find this interesting. I had known about their struggle with the story and how they didn’t have an ending for The Jungle Book until the very end [of production]. [At that time,] it was just fun sequences that they would string together, but how would this thing end? Nobody had an idea. It was interesting to find out more about those kinds of struggles, but I never really knew particular comments made by Walt Disney. We all know it’s Walt’s last [animated feature] film and he saw quite a bit of it. He saw the structure and he wanted a lighter approach toward the story and nothing really serious and heavy. Through Becky Cline at the Walt Disney Archives, we found these memos that were given to various animators and staff about Walt’s comments. I just devoured those because I had no idea how detailed they were.

Just to give you one example: in the King Louie sequence, Walt liked the animation of King Louie—particularly Milt Kahl’s version—but he had a hard time with some of Louie’s expressions. He couldn’t see King Louie’s eyes—they were too small for him, and there was also something about the eyebrows that didn’t quite work. We’re talking detailed comments about the size of the [character’s] eyes and eyebrows. He was still deeply involved in the film until the very end.

There were other comments as well about background styling. Walt was not a fan of the previous film in terms of styling. In The Sword  in the Stone (1963), Walt thought there was too much color in the backgrounds. He would even say in these notes [he wanted] a more monochromatic look for the backgrounds, a nice backdrop for the characters. He even said in one sentence, “none of that Sword stuff.” He didn't even say “in the Stone” he said “none of that Sword stuff.” Just to see his comments and how involved he was until the very end was just, it really gave me goosebumps. I've never seen those comments before.

BB: It’s such a treasure to see how involved Walt was, knowing everything he was working on at that time. Despite having many projects running concurrently, he still had a super sharp eye on the backgrounds, the character styling, the character animation. In every level of the animation process, he was still exploring and making detailed notes.

AD: You would think with the Parks and television and all of this that he wouldn't have been so involved, but he didn't want to give the artists complete control yet. It might have gone more in the way of The Sword in the Stone. That picture was more abstract and graphic, and he always wanted his movies to feel and look grounded so the general audience could relate to it. Even Ward Kimball said, “Whenever we got too artsy and too crazy, Walt would say, ‘I don't get it.’” He (kept) them (grounded). He felt like he needed to stay involved in [The] Jungle Book and keep it on track to be the movie that he envisioned. It's very much his movie. It's his last (animated feature film). People might think of by that time he had completely given up [creative supervision of feature animation], but it's the opposite. He was so involved. It's therefore turned out to be a masterpiece.

BB: The Jungle Book’s success reinvigorated The Walt Disney Studios’ commitment to animated films. Why do you believe this film has endured as long as it has and how has it inspired Disney animation since then?

AD: I don’t think I’m the only one who would say this, but I think it’s one of the funniest [films] that Walt Disney has done. It has some of the funniest characters they’ve ever done. There is so little story. There’s not a lot happening. The kid just wants to stay in the jungle and he’s running into these eccentric characters and interacts with them. That’s really the gist of the story until Baloo and Bagheera finally decide, “It's time, we have to take him to the Man Village.” Because there is so little story structure, there is room for personality. There's room for them to interact. There's room too for eccentricities and that's what I think people really gravitated toward.

I don't know if I've seen in previous [Disney] films [where] an animated character is mocking what another animated character just said. We have that pencil test [on display] where Baloo had just met Mowgli, and Bagheera comes running in because he hears the big bear roar (of) Baloo teaching Mowgli how to sound like a bear. Then (Baloo and Bagheera) have a conversation, and Baloo says he’s going to teach Mowgli all he knows. Bagheera says, “Oh, and how do you think he will survive?” Baloo doesn't want to hear that. He just says, “How do you think he will survive?” I’ve never seen an animated character do that. He's mocking him. Frank Thomas just animated that so beautifully. There are a few other times [this happens,] Kaa the snake does the same thing when (he) falls down the tree and he's got a knot in his tail. As he's trying to slither off, Mowgli sees this and he goes to Bagheera, “He's got a knot in his tail!” Kaa (retorts) mockingly, “He's got a knot in his tail!” That kind of stuff just hadn't been done. It's just so funny that the characters act in such a believable way. It's like a level beyond what you had known from Disney Animation. It goes further with the relationship of the characters and the way they interact, and I think people gravitate toward that. People like rich characters and to laugh at character gags, not necessarily story gags.

I think the other reason why this movie endured for so long has to do with the music, because I've been in so many screenings all over the world where the movie was playing and people literally leave the theater dancing to that rhythm. The film took over the world and practically saved animation. Talking about just my childhood and the country where I grew up in—which is Germany—it was as big as any movie you can possibly imagine. Many times, I couldn't get tickets because it was just sold out. Lines around the block for [Walt] Disney's The Jungle Book, not Star Wars, not Avatar. No, it was The Jungle Book.

BB: I have some rapid-fire questions. What is your favorite song from The Jungle Book?

AD: I love “The Bare Necessities,” even though it's not a Sherman brothers song. There was a reason why Walt wanted to keep that one by Terry Gilkyson, who was also a songwriter for Disney—it really exemplifies the philosophy of Baloo. In the movie, it's like “Don't worry about things too much, just have a good time.” I love the lyrics. I like the beat and the tempo. I also like “I Wan’na Be Like You” by the Sherman brothers. I love “My Own Home” at the end; Darleen Carr sings it so beautifully. It is such a beautiful ballad and the perfect ending for the film. Those would be my three favorites.

BB: Who is your favorite character?

AD: I guess it would have to be Baloo. He’s the uncle that every kid wants to have. I had some eccentric uncles, but none of them were as lovable as Baloo. This is the character you want to spend time with because you know you have a good time.

He was animated mostly by Ollie Johnston; I think he would get most of the credit. He animated the intro of Baloo and then Frank Thomas took over when they're starting to box. Then Milt Kahl animated a whole bunch of scenes, too. It's a little bit split up in terms of who can take the most credit, but I think it would be Ollie Johnston.

BB: What is your favorite line in the film?

AD: I love the speech that Colonel Hathi does in front of the elephants about the Victoria Cross. They know it. It's actually his wife Winifred who says, “There we go again” to the story about the Victoria Cross, and then he comes and rambles off about how brave he was and blah blah blah. That makes me laugh every single time.

Bruce Reitherman, Darleen Carr, Andreas Deja, and Floyd Norman; courtesy of The Walt Disney Family Museum, The Jungle Book artwork © Disney

BB: What is your favorite voice acting moment?

AD: They all have great voices. [Animation] historians say now that this is like one of the first films where pretty much all of the characters maybe except for Mowgli—who was Bruce Reitherman, the director’s son—were kind of famous. People knew Phil Harris from [Las] Vegas and they knew Louis Prima and his acts. But nowadays when kids see the film for the first time, they don't know who these people are, so it's all fresh to them. But if I would single one out: the voice of the tiger by George Sanders. That’s a [true] tiger in the voice. He’s so above it all, can't be bothered with a lot of things, and wants to get right to the point. He doesn't even have to do a lot of fighting. He does a little bit at the end, but it's just so he (gets) his way. Then of course, the tiger is a caricature of (his voice artist) George Sanders. When that tiger opens his mouth and that voice comes out of there, it is one hundred percent so convincing and beautiful.

BB: Last question, what is your favorite animated sequence in the film?

AD: It has to be the King Louie sequence. As soon as the camera goes into the jungle and you have that beautiful shot with the ruins and you hear the drums going, I’m like, “Okay, I'm going to be in for a good time with some good music and all this monkey craziness.” I was always looking forward to that scene.

BB: Some good monkey business!

AD: You said it all right!

 

Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book: Making a Masterpiece is on view in the Diane Disney Miller Exhibition Hall now through January 8, 2023.

–Bri Bertolaccini, Marketing Manager

 

Image credits (in order of appearance):

  • Andreas Deja, 2022; photo by Frank Anzalone, courtesy of The Walt Disney Family Museum

  • Bruce Reitherman, Darleen Carr, Andreas Deja, and Floyd Norman, 2022; photo by Frank Anzalone, courtesy of The Walt Disney Family Museum, The Jungle Book artwork © Disney