Unusual Suspects: Kaa

Posted on Mon, 02/11/2013 - 15:30

We all know about The Jungle Book's Mowgli, Baloo, Bagheera and others... but how much can you say about all the other characters in the background? Each month in our new Unusual Suspects series, we will examine one character from a classic film, which may not shine as brightly as the main characters of the film, but still plays a distinct role in the story as a whole. As we celebrated the Chinese New Year this past weekend, we take a look at one of the most noteworthy Disney sssnakes.

Those who know Kaa as the sly and sinister snake in Walt Disney’s animated Jungle Book might be surprised to discover that in Rudyard Kipling’s original tales the powerful python was one of Mowgli’s mentors. The first treatment by the Disney story team hewed closely to Kipling’s stories, but Walt wanted the film to be lighter and more humorous. Kaa became a secondary antagonist: a threat to Mowgli yet an entertaining foil to the true terror of the jungle, Shere Khan.

Master animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston noted that Kaa was “definitely a new type of villain, enthusiastic and overconfident in his anticipation of success and petulant in his failures. The storymen knew they could have fun with Kaa’s dialogue, but as Frank and Ollie remembered, “Our first attempts at casting for a voice unearthed much sibilance but not enough personality.” It was Walt who came up with the answer, approaching one of his favorite voice actors, who was at the studio recording the lead role for an upcoming animated featurette.

The veteran stage and screen performer was Sterling Holloway, whose first Disney credit goes back to Dumbo in 1941. “Walt came to me,” he recalled, “and he’s such a stickler for voices and said ‘when you’re finished with what you’re doing today on Winnie the Pooh, see what you can do with a snake.’ Holloway knew just what to do. “I thought, wouldn’t it be funny to have a snake with an aching back, because it would be such a looong ache.”

Songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman, working closely with the storymen, agreed that he was the perfect choice. “We decided to have some fun—so gave the snake a sinus condition that makes him speak with a hissing sound. …Sterling Holloway even came up with the idea that the snake had s-s-s-sacroiliac problems! Sterling was great.”

Walt also knew that the snake would need a signature song. Story artist Floyd Norman recalls that when he and Vance Gerry pitched storyboards to Walt, he wanted some music, saying “Don’t worry, I’ll have the Sherman Brothers write a song for you.” To Floyd’s astonishment, the Shermans delivered “Trust in Me” within a week. They later revealed it “actually started out as a piece for Mary Poppins called “The Land of Sand.” …The scene was omitted, but the melody always haunted us…so we changed the lyrics and revised the tune a little (adding a lot of hissing ‘s” words to the lyrics), and it became “Trust in Me.”

Floyd remembers going to Studio A to watch Holloway record the song: “Talk about that being a life changing moment for me as a young story artist. I remember my mother taking me to see Dumbo--and the stork was voiced by Sterling Holloway. Here I was on the stage with Sterling Holloway, and here he was, doing a voice for a character that I was working on. Now that’s Disney magic.”

“Sterling was recording both characters [Pooh and Kaa] at the same time,” continues Floyd. “He was an amazing performer. Watching him was a tremendous influence on the character. Sterling transforms himself into the character, and his behavior affects the way you go back to the character. You can't help but see Sterling's performance, and it comes out in your drawings.”

When Holloway came to Hollywood in 1926, critics didn’t think he had much of a future. “The movies were in a state of turmoil. Sound was coming in and silent were going out. …Nobody thought I was suitable for talkies.” By the time he played Kaa, he was a film and television veteran—and had provided voice characterizations and narrations for over 20 Disney films. His was a unique and memorable voice, but his performance made every single character completely different.

It's something to think about the next time you see the Messenger Stork, the adult Flower, the Cheshire Cat, Winnie the Pooh, and—of course—the sinuous, slithery and sublimely entertaining Kaa.

Paula Sigman Lowery is an historian, author, and former archivist for The Walt Disney Company. She was one of the founders of Disney Character Voices, and founding director of the Walt Disney Collectors Society. She was part of the core team that developed the story and content for The Walt Disney Family Museum, where she continues to serve as a Consulting Historian.