When Disney animation studios were making great movies like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp, two Los Angeles brothers were practising their musical act and starting to make it in the music industry.
Robert and Richard Sherman first worked with Disney by writing songs for Annette Funicello in the 1950s (Annette had been one of the very early and most famous Mouseketeers and had a long career in Hollywood). Their work got the attention of Walt Disney himself, who hired the Shermans as the official Disney songwriting team in 1960.
Through their work together over the next ten years, the Shermans wrote many of the famous songs from Disney movies like Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Aristocats and The Jungle Book. They won an Oscar for Chim Chim Cher-ee and one of their most popular creations – It’s a Small World (After All) – is among the most translated and performed songs in the world!
Released in 1967, The Jungle Book was the last movie Walt Disney himself worked on, and The Sherman Brothers helped develop the characters as well as working on the classics songs I Wanna Be Like You and Bare Necessities.
Richard’s now 85 years old. He has some great memories of working for Disney and he’s still writing and performing songs. The Disney Magazine met him to talk about the DVD launch of The Jungle Book Diamond Edition at Disney headquarters in LA, and he gave us a treat by doing some of his songs on a grand piano.
Richard’s favourite scene and favourite movie
“Wow, I’ve never been asked that,” is what Richard says when we ask him his favourite moment in The Jungle Book. “I’ll tell you what I find really touching, it’s right at the end when Bagheera and Baloo are watching Mowgli going into the man village and they know he’s leaving them. They talk about how the girl in the village is going to ruin him but how it’s the way it’s meant to be. And Baloo slaps Bagheera on the back and says ‘okay Baggy, get with the beat,’ and they start singing as they walk off back to the jungle. It just got to me. It’s very Disney, very right. It was very meaningful.”
And Richard’s favourite movie? Mary Poppins…
Making music part of the story
Disney movies have always been famous for their music, and you probably know a lot of the songs from them even if you haven’t seen the movies.
The reason why is because Walt Disney thought the music was such an important part of the story, and when he was coming up with a new idea for a movie, he’d get the songwriters involved in the discussions with artists and scriptwriters early on. Richard and his brother Robert were involved with The Jungle Book from the very beginning.
“Walt liked the way we worked because we thought ‘story’,” Richard says. “When we first wrote songs about the pictures the artists had drawn, we’d plot out why the song was happening, what period and style the music would be in and everything.”
When they were working on The Parent Trap (in 1961 – way before the 1998 remake starring Lindsay Lohan), Walt assigned them to write a song that the parents of the little twin girls in the movie fell in love to.
“If the picture came out in 1961 and the girls were 13 years old, that means the parents met and fell in love around the late 1940s,” Richard remembers, “so we asked ourselves who’d been popular at the time and wrote a song in that style that was very melodic and sweet. So because we thought of the music fitting into the story, he put us down for every story meeting from the very beginning.”
The Jungle Book was a collection of short stories published by author Rudyard Kipling in 1894 that connected the stories of Mowgli and his friends in the jungles of India, where Kipling had spent some of his childhood.
Walt Disney liked the story that connected everything, but Richard says it was murky, dark and pretty scary. “It’s not what Walt wanted but he loved the idea of a boy raised from babyhood by a pack of wolves who learns the ways of the animals,” he remembers. “It’s a wonderful story and Walt wanted to make his own version. He wanted to have fun with the same idea of a little boy and all these strange and bizarre characters.”
Richard, his brother Robert, Walt and the artists rewrote the story from scratch. One thing they definitely changed was the scene where the king of the apes kidnaps Mowgli away from Baloo. “It was really terrifying in the book!” Richard says. “Baloo and Mowgli had become friends and all of a sudden these apes snatch Mowgli away. There was nothing fun about it but we decided we were going to have fun with it. Walt’s instructions was always ‘find the fun in it’.”
And they did, writing one of the most classic songs in the history of Disney, where the orangutan king serenades Mowgli and his subjects with I Wanna be Like You.
It’s all in the characters
The movie had all the major characters from the book, and some minor ones too. But the Sherman Brothers, Walt and the artists gave them very special features that make them more human and in many cases, much funnier.
Hathi, leader of the elephant herd, was re-imagined as Colonel Hathi, a very proud retired soldier who leads his fellow elephants in a military-style march.
The biggest band in the world when The Jungle Book was in production was The Beatles, so when the story called for a barbershop quartet of singing vultures, the artists gave them the distinctive mop-top hairstyles the Beatles were making famous at the time.
For Kaa, the hypnotic python, Richard says they looked at the drawings the artists had come up with for the character and got the idea that he had the speech impediment that became Kaa’s funniest feature. “Everyone started to laugh when we suggested it,” he says, “and we all decided then and there he was going to hiss when he spoke. One of the guys suggested he gets a knot tied in his tail and says ‘it’th going to thlow down my thlither’.”
But perhaps the biggest contribution the Shermans made to the characters was King Louie, the leader of the cheeky orangutan tribe. The Shermans knew they wanted the orangutan’s number I Wanna Be Like You to be in a jazz style, so they kept the signature style of Louis Prima in mind, a jazz performer and songwriter who was very big at the time.
In fact, Prima was such a fan of Disney that when he received word he was the inspiration for the character, he agreed to do the voice in the film and sing Louie’s big song.
The long and short
Because animation takes so much pre-planning, the director and animators get a feeling very early on when things aren’t working and need to be cut out.
All the sequences are sketched out and talked about before the animators start drawing the pictures needed to make them, so it’s pretty rare for a whole sequence to be cut, but Richard says some songs had more verses or lyrics that were cut out because they were getting too long.
“You have to be a pro,” Richard says when we ask him if it’s hard working on something for so long only to see it cut out. “You just have to take it and hope that the meaning is still there. You can’t be a prima donna.
When the Shermans started in the entertainment business in the 1950s, there weren’t as many movies being made, they took longer to make, and the technology to make them was much harder to use and much more expensive than today.
But when we ask him what it takes to make it in the music or movie industry, he says some things never change. “Do the very best you can, get as good as you possibly can and keep trying. Keep hoping that somewhere along the line it’ll happen. There’s a wonderful expression – ‘luck happens when experience meets opportunity’. It’s an old expression but it’s true. Keep your eye open for that potential chance that puts your foot in the door, and do your best every time.”
Did You Know?
The animated Disney version wasn’t the first time The Jungle Book had been filmed. A live action version was made way back in 1942. Many scenes involving Bagheera featured a live (but tame) panther to share the screen with the human actors, but dangerous animals like Kaa the serpent were huge rubber models controlled by string and wires.
At the moment, both Disney and another studio (Warner Brothers) are writing scripts for new live action movies they hope to make soon!