The Jungle Book: A 20th Anniversary Conversation with Bobbie Poledouris

jungle book poster1994’s The Jungle Book was the first time Disney turned one of its classic animated films into a live-action feature. Starring Jason Scott Lee as adult Mowgli, Lena Headey as his love interest, and Cary Elwes as the British baddie, the film was a surprisingly dramatic retelling of the Rudyard Kipling story, and featured exotic sets and locations, an effective blend of mature emotion and play, and an impressive supporting cast that included John Cleese and Sam Neill. The film was directed by Stephen Sommers, then only 32, who’d just made another delightful literary adaptation—The Adventures of Huck Finn (featuring my favorite Bill Conti score)—and would go on to make The Mummy films.

“I wanted to make an adventure movie with a love story,” Sommers said in the film’s production notes, acknowledging as his inspiration films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and the romantic adventure movies of the 1930s. “As Kipling’s stories had no through line, I took his animal characters and based some invented human characters on them. Boone is Kaa the snake. John Cleese is Baloo the bear. Sam Neil’s character Hahti, the pompous elephant. The only character who doesn’t have an animal counterpart is Kitty, the love interest. She’s my Olivia de Havilland.”

Sommers commissioned the great Basil Poledouris for a lavishly old-fashioned and purely orchestral score to accompany his film, and Poledouris responded with one of the finest and most romantic action works of his career. Quality projects were (unknown to him) slowly and criminally beginning to dry up, and The Jungle Book invited the same style of lyrical writing and enormous emotions so abundant in one of his previous family film assignments, Free Willy—an opportunity that (with the exception of Free Willy 2 the next year) would never come again in the same form.

Bobbie Poledouris, Basil’s wife of 35 years, remembers it as one of the happiest experiences of his life. “It came at a good time,” she says. “We had just been to London for Lassie, and we went back for Jungle Book. He was very busy. The movies after it were not great experiences (except for The War at Home). But in the context of all the other films around it, Jungle Book was the easiest one for Basil to score, because he related to it, and the people involved were very comfortable and confident—and they knew they had a good film.”

Bobbie and Basil Poledouris at a recording session in 1989.

Sommers had a surprising amount of autonomy and control for so a young a filmmaker (“During breaks he’d be playing a video game,” Bobbie recalls) and working for such a big studio. “He was very enthusiastic and not jaded,” says Bobbie, “and just excited to have Basil work on the film. He co-wrote the script, and had a clear vision of the movie and his direction, and what he wanted the music to be. So the communication was very good between the two of them.”

Poledouris leapt at the canvas Sommers gave him, an invitation to write something in the style of the vintage period epics he loved. “He was a great fan of Miklos Rozsa,” says Bobbie. “And any kind of romance—romance of the sea, romance of people—those were the easiest cues for him to write, and are among the most beautiful. The action cues, of course, work well with the film. But the major themes I remember and love are pretty much all romantic.”

He wrote the film’s opening title piece as an overture, and it introduces his main theme, what he referred to as the “kid” theme, and a love theme for Mowgli and Kitty. The main theme strikes the pace of the grand caravan lumbering through the jungle in the opening sequence, and captures the nobility and majesty of the animals who inhabit the jungle and the human boy who becomes one of them. The kid theme mimics the playfulness of young Mowgli (along with some of his later escapades when he’s reintroduced to human society) with a sunny motif that sprints and clambers up and down simple scales. The love theme twirls around an ascending, bittersweet melody that harmonizes delicate flutes and a deep, masculine bass line for an idea equally chaste and mature.

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Poledouris wrote strong and tuneful secondary themes for, among others, the menacing Shere Kahn and the splendor of Monkey City. Even in the score’s action set pieces, there is a pervading presence of melody and grand romance in the writing.

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The score’s most exquisite, heartbreaking cue accompanies Mowgli as he runs desperately through the jungle for help after Baloo (the bear) is shot. The tragedy is acknowledged with an anguished string passage, followed by an urgent statement of the main theme cried out by orchestra over a fiercely calm beat pounded out on tribal drums. “It’s one of my favorite cues he ever wrote,” says Bobbie. “I wish it was longer.”

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“I guess if you listen to Basil’s music, there is a touch of sadness in all of it,” she says. “I think that’s just part of who he was. I don’t know if it’s the music from the Greek church or it’s the melodic structure that he favored, but there’s an underlying sadness in many of the cues…romantic with a little sadness.”

Composing Conan 1981Poledouris would always test out themes for Bobbie on the family piano. “I would hear everything before it was recorded,” she says, “so they didn’t come as a surprise. A cue that I loved, I loved it in its first form—which was on the piano. I knew this was going to be a beautiful one. But I think it was especially powerful seeing it on the big screen during the recording with the full orchestra.”

The Jungle Book was recorded at Air Studios (Lyndhurst Hall) in London, and Bobbie traveled with Basil (as she often did) for the sessions. “We stayed at the Landmark Hotel on Marylebone Road, where the rooms are around this huge atrium. He would bring a keyboard with him, and sometimes we would have an extra room at the hotel for making changes or polishing a few last-minute things.

“Those are some of my best memories, the recording sessions. And this one was especially good, because everybody was so happy.”

Thanks to Bobbie Poledouris for her invaluable contributions to this essay.