I bought the new "Jungle Book" DVD yesterday and I was pleasantly surprised to find a documentary included in the bonus materials about the development of the film's story. It talks about Bill Peet's first written treatment for the movie and compares it with both the original book and the final version as overseen by Walt after Bill had left the studio. There's some great storyboards in the documentary that I've never seen before and more details about Peet's version than I've ever heard before.
Peet's original ending had Mowgli able to move within the world of the "Man Village" and the world of the jungle as well. That's interesting because I always think of the modern Disney films as having those kind of "have your cake and eat it too" endings - like Ariel being able to marry Price Eric and keep a relationship with her father as well, or Aladdin setting the Genie free and becoming a prince besides.
Some pictures of Bill Peet at work. Click to see all of these bigger.
This one (below) appears to be a Vance Gerry drawing. The rest all appear to be by Bill Peet.
One of the sections of the documentary shows a sequence Peet had in mind for the film. It begins with Bagheera and Mowgli up in a tree, with Col. Hathi (the elephant) below, threatening to kill Mowgli if he catches him. Then the two of them descend the tree and run into a rhino, who can smell Mowgli and threatens to kill Mowgli if he can catch him. The Rhino ends up chasing Bagheera and Mowgli into a tree. It seems like an odd sequence because it has a weird symmetry - the same things happen twice: they start and end in a tree and are threatened by two big animals inbetween. It would be great to read Peet's original treatment and see how he saw this part fitting in with the overall story.
One of the comments made by Walt during the making of the movie was that "fewer events (in the story) make more room for character", supposedly in regard to Peet having too many complicated events and too much expositionary dialogue. I never heard of Walt actually saying it that plainly but it's interesting because many of us have said this over the years recently at Disney, because on many of our recent films it always felt like the movie was moving at a breakneck pace from event to event and the movies would never slow down to let the movie breathe and showcase the personalities of the characters that populate our movies. "Jungle Book" is certainly the most leisurely-paced of the Disney movies made during Walt's life with the plot being basically a "road trip" - a journey from one place to another and episodes of meeting different characters along the way. To me there is nothing wrong with this approach - I've always felt that the first "false notes" that the story hits are at the point where the vultures are introduced and then the climax and defeat of Shere Kahn feels distinctly unsatisfying and underwheming. These parts of the movie were the ones that were cobbled together after Walt's death (supposedly Walt didn't think much of the real-life Beatles and I wonder what he would have thought about the idea of four vultures that look like the Beatles and yet sound more like a Barbershop quartet than the Beatles).
Anyway, in the modern Disney executive-driven era, we were always encouraged to make the pace of our movies faster, faster, faster in order to avoid boring the audience. One executive was (in)famous for yelling out "I'm going for popcorn!" in the middle of a story pitch if it seemed like the pace of the story was bogging down. Certainly it can be said that Disney movies made after Walt's death and before the arrival of the modern executive era suffered from a pace that was too slow and lacked a narrative drive, generally meandering from place to place without enough cohesive threads to hold the whole thing together. So I think the executives were trying to leave that kind of filmmaking behind and begin to create movies more akin to the live action films of the time, films like "Top Gun" that had a lot of adrenaline and energy along with a very fast pace.
After a few years of pushing the Disney films to go at a faster and faster pace, it just became habit. Nobody was ever surprised to hear an executive say "cut this part out, hurry this part along quicker" but many of us were tired of this policy because it obviously isn't appropriate to every situation. There are many types of moments in a film that need time to breathe or else they just won't work. It's hard to imagine Walt telling his story guys that they should hurry through "When You Wish Upon a Star", "April Showers" or "Baby Mine" or else the audience would get bored. Even many modern animated films prove this theory out. Think about Jesse's song in "Toy Story 2" and how effective it was. A film has to slow down and take it's time with certain moments for them to work, and in general all of the Pixar movies have much longer running times than their modern Disney counterparts and obviously audiences have found them much more rewarding and satisfying.
One thing you discover in animated filmmaking is how much of a difference these little pauses can make. At Disney we were always rushed along to make shorter films because every frame adds cost to the budget. Also, the way the films are made has become much different in the last ten years. Instead of working in the story room to work out the movie, much more of the filmmaking process now happens in the editing room because of the invention of digital editing. It's so much easier now to adjust, tweak and experiment with your story reels now in the editing room. As a result, both editors and directors end up watching the story reels over and over and over in editorial much more than they used to. This has an unintended consequence because the more they watch it the more they can become used to the pace of the movie and it starts to seem long to them. If you watch anything over and over and you know what's going to happen next, you become dulled to the rhythm of it and it starts to seem long and boring in all the slow spots. So I would say that modern directors and editors tend to get bored with the quieter parts and they start to trim frames off here and there to keep the pace moving.
After a while this has a cumulative effect and the film starts to feel rushed. I actually can't tell you how many films I saw at Disney that I thought worked really well, only to see the final version in the theater and think that the sincerity and the heart of the film suffered in the final product. A few frames here and there - as crazy as this sounds - makes a big, big difference. Sincerity lives in those few frames. If you don't let a heartfelt moment play out with the length and "air" that it needs it will start to feel forced and manipulative to the audience. And in the last minute panic that happens in making a movie sometimes people give into their fears that they might bore the audience for a moment and they tend to trim a few frames here and there because it doesn't seem like it will effect the film as a whole. By that point everyone involved in the making of the movie is so exhausted from watching the movie day in and day out for years that it's hard to have any perspective on the thing or any ability to look at it objectively. So it can be hard to tell what's working and why.
Anyway, that's just my two cents as a story person. Any director or editor or executive would have a different perspective, and I can only tell you what I've seen from my side of the fence.
For more great information on Ken Anderson and "The Jungle Book" see Will Finn's great post about the topic.