It was one of Walt Disney’s great disappointments that Fantasia (1940) under-performed during its original release, and when it did find an audience, in the 1960s, it probably wasn’t the one Walt would have imagined: people on drugs.
Critic Danny Peary documented this strange phenomenon in his landmark 1980 book Cult Movies: “Fantasia has become an enormous hit in re-release, particularly in the sixties with the pot-smoking, acid-dropping Woodstock generation, which caused great embarrassment to the straitlaced Disney organization.” But, after all, money is money. Is it possible that, with its 19th animated feature, The Jungle Book (1967), Disney intentionally but slyly courted substance abusers? Consider the evidence.
The Disney company is well known for anticipating what viewers want to see and in a movie, and the studio’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book went through many changes during production to ensure it would be a crowdpleaser. The original drafts of the screenplay were reportedly dark and mysterious, but Walt insisted on a lighter, more carefree tone, dismissing composer Terry Gilkyson, ditching most of his song score, and replacing him with Robert and Richard Sherman.
The Sherman Brothers, who’d written “It’s a Small World” and the songs for Mary Poppins, ended up producing one of the catchiest, most distinctive song scores in Disney history. The one Gilkyson song that Walt kept was “The Bare Necessities,” and it seems to have been the template that the Shermans followed for their own Jungle Book compositions.
Simply put, The Jungle Book is the perfect movie for the late 1960s because nearly every song in it corresponds to some kind of drug abuse. No matter your intoxicant of choice, this movie has you covered. The story is essentially about an innocent child surrounded by substance-abusing adults of every variety. By interacting with them, the kid gets to see what effect these chemicals have on the body. That’s the real jungle that little Mowgli is navigating.
Let’s start with “The Bare Necessities.” This is the song Baloo the Bear (Phil Harris) sings to Mowgli about the importance of appreciating the little things in life and not striving for things that are impossible or unattainable. (“Don’t spend your time lookin’ around for something you want that can’t be found.”) Has there ever been a more obvious pot anthem than this? Baloo, whose very name sounds like a hippie slang term for marijuana, is the archetypal unambitious stoner, trying to lure impressionable Mowgli into his lazy lifestyle. The bear clearly has a case of the munchies, too, since the lyrics include numerous things Baloo wants to eat, including honey and “fancy ants.”
But if you’re not a passive pothead and prefer the zippy after-effects of cocaine, then clearly “I Wan’na Be Like You” is your go-to jam, as sung by King Louie of the Apes (Louis Prima). This song is the very opposite of “The Bare Necessities.” In sharp contrast to Baloo, King Louie is frighteningly ambitious and acquisitive, and his signature song shows him in the middle of what can only be described as drug-fueled mania, as he demands that Mowgli show him “the secret” of “man’s red fire.” In classic coke-rap fashion, the song is self-aggrandizing, paranoid, and incoherent yet highly energized. Had it not been released in 1967, it would be an ideal theme song for any 1980s Wall Street broker. Who else would want to call themselves a “king of the swingers” or a “jungle VIP”?
If heroin is your drug, the Jungle Book song for you is “Trust in Me,” performed by Kaa the Snake (Sterling Holloway). A recycled version of a discarded Mary Poppins number called “The Land of Sand,” “Trust in Me” is the perfect thing to put on when you just want to shoot up and forget your other, many problems. Compared to most of the other songs in The Jungle Book, “Trust in Me” is sensual and seductive. The fact that it’s sung by the same guy who voiced Winnie the Pooh, only now he’s evil, is another weird bonus. And if you don’t think that a snake is a perfect metaphor for heroin addiction, then you have clearly not seen another classic film from 1967, namely Narcotics: Pit of Despair. Plus, this song features one of the druggiest lyrics in Disney history: “Slip into silent slumber/Sail on a silver mist/Slowly and surely your senses will cease to exist.” Isn’t that every junkie’s dream?
We shouldn’t leave out those fun-seeking, recreational drug users who simply want to drop acid and watch a 78-minute cartoon on the big screen while they marvel at the pretty colors and talking animals. Those folks are probably going to enjoy the mysterious, vaguely exotic “My Own Home” (sung by the human girl Mowgli sees at the river), which sounds like a George Harrison track from one of the later Beatles LPs. Also, dry mouth is a common side effect of hallucinogens, so the song’s lyrics about fetching water should ring very true.
Ordinary, garden-variety alcoholics are not ignored by The Jungle Book either. That’s how thorough this movie is. For the drunks in the audience, there is “Colonel Hathi’s March,” performed by a herd of cheerful elephants (led by J. Pat O’Malley) who enjoy marching but do not seem to care where they’re going, presumably because they’re plastered. Elephants are a longstanding symbol for drunkenness, especially in the classic Disney song “Pink Elephants on Parade” from 1941’s Dumbo. Since the studio had already done elephants parading, they decided to have them march in this one. These animated pachyderms, like Baloo, are depicted as upbeat and generally harmless. So The Jungle Book seems to favor pot and booze over heroin and cocaine, both associated with villains in this film.
And then we come to the single darkest, most twisted song in the entire movie: “That’s What Friends Are For,” crooned by a group of vultures with Liverpudlian accents. The humor in this scene comes from the fact that the birds are pretending to be Mowgli’s friends when, in reality, they want to feed on his corpse when he expires. This ghoulish yet catchy number is the ideal theme song for pill poppers, those poor unfortunates scarfing down uppers and downers to regulate their moods. Sample lyric: “When you are down/Who comes around/To pluck you up/When you are down?” Notice the play on the words “up” and “down.” Another couplet seems to reference amphetamines or speed: “And when you’re lost in dire need/Who’s at your side with lightning speed?”
The sad truth is that these potentially dangerous pills may initially seem like our friends or helpers. When the Rolling Stones did a song about the popularity of Valium in 1966, just a year before The Jungle Book, they called it “Mother’s Little Helper.” But an over-reliance on uppers and downers can lead to a premature death. As the vultures themselves sing sweetly to Mowgli: “We’re your friends to the bitter end.”