The making of The Jungle Book was even wilder than you'd imagine, finds Craig McLean

In a nondescript building in the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Glendale, they're keeping the magic safe. I can't pass on the address. I can't photograph the (blank) exterior, nor even the surrounding streets, and I certainly can't tweet any images from the interior. I can't use a pen inside, only pencil. I may want to bring a jumper, as the temperature is maintained at a cool, artefact-preserving 15C. If I want to touch anything, I have to wear white gloves. But actually, that's not going to happen - no one touches anything, save the trained (and gloved) conservators. And just in case I feel tempted, there's a warning, plastered on backlit display cases, from the little guy who started all this.

"Attention! Original Artwork!" trumpet the signs over an image of Mickey Mouse and a paintbrush.

This is the Walt Disney Company's Animation Research Library (ARL). It's the top-secret home to 64 million pieces of artwork and production material, stretching back to foundational character Julius the Cat (1924), and soon to encompass work from the latest big-screen Disney venture, Frozen. From Snow White to Bambi to The Little Mermaid to Wreck-It Ralph and multiple points in between. That's a lot of cartoonery, and a lot of history.

This 12,000sq ft facility used to be called The Morgue. "But this is not where artwork went to die," explains one of my guides, so the name was changed. Now the ARL is a living, breathing resource that is available to all wings of the Disney empire. Putting on an exhibition in Australia? Reissuing an animation in cinemas? Researching vintage drawing techniques to give a new project a "classic Disney" undercurrent? You come to the ARL, where a project to digitise the company's vast archives is ongoing and where the internal computer server is called Gems. That's not an acronym; everything here is viewed as a gem.


And so the team behind the latest Disney release availed themselves of the ARL's 24 staff and cornucopia of original pen and pencil drawings, animation cells and film reels. The Jungle Book is a key Disney film for several reasons. From a simple entertainment point of view, it is one of the most enduring cartoons the company has made; a vivid, energetic, funny and touching fable - its robustness evidenced by a stage version and plans for a new live-action version (following a previous live-action version released in 1994).

The characters are decade-straddling classics: mancub Mowgli, lost as a baby in the Indian jungle; party-hearty bear Baloo; avuncular panther Bagheera (voiced by British actor Sebastian Cabot); hungry tiger Shere Khan (voiced by the great George Sanders); sinister snake Kaa. And the songs are among the best ever written for a Disney film: Oscar-nominated The Bare Necessities, I Wanna be Like You, Trust in Me, Colonel Hathi's March.

But a lot was riding on the company's 19th animated feature. In 1961, 101 Dalmations had been a huge box-office success, but the next film, The Sword in the Stone (1963), was not. Disney himself was concerned at this dip. As his company had diversified in the 50s - into theme parks, television series, live-action films - he'd become less hands-on with the feature animations. After the commercial disappointment of The Sword in the Stone, he resolved to keep a close eye on the next big-screen cartoon.

Disney had already OK'd an idea from Bill Peet, one of his long-standing animators and storymen, for an adaptation of Kipling's book - he'd told the company's all-powerful founder that the British author's Raj-era tales offered a wealth of potential for Disney-friendly animal characters. But according to Sibley, when the boss came to read the script, "what he found was that the team headed up by Bill Peet had come up with quite a sombre, dark, serious story - much more serious than any films they'd done in animation since the days of Pinocchio". An "alarmed" Disney had "a bit of a confrontation with Bill Peet". The original story was junked and Peet duly left the studio in 1964.

Ever the perfectionist, Disney went back to scratch. He called in another vintage Disney storyman, Larry Clemmons, and a new team of creatives. His opening gambit was "to give a copy of Kipling's book to Larry and his colleagues", says Sibley. "Disney said, 'the first thing I want you to do is not to read it!' And they started working with the characters that Peet had created in his original treatment, but creating a much more upbeat, lively, freer, light-in-mood film." Another casualty of this restart was the original score by songwriter Terry Gilkyson.

This was part of the Disney method: have the songs written very early in the film-making process. Says Sibley, "In Mary Poppins, for example, nearly all of the songs we now know were set down long before the final script was ever arrived at. They were decided upon as key points in the movie, around which the rest of the story would be fitted in." Only one of Gilkyson's songs survived the cull: The Bare Necessities.

To fill the musical void, Disney called in the Sherman Brothers, Richard and Robert. They had worked for the Disney company since 1958, but had hit musical pay dirt with their songs for 1964's Mary Poppins. That soundtrack won the Shermans two Academy Awards, and with Feed the Birds they created Disney's personal favourite song.

There's another reason for The Jungle Book's totemic status within the Disney canon. Disney died before the film was completed, in December 1966. The studio closed for a day - just the one - before production continued apace.