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Working for Walt: 'The Jungle Book' Story Man Floyd Norman Reflects on Mr. Disney's Last Film

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Floyd Norman, the first African American animator at Disney, always dreamed of being a Disney animator. For ten years, from 1956 on, he lived that dream. Then Walt Disney snapped his magic fingers. 

"Walt decided I was not an animator, but I was a story man," Norman told us over the phone recently while discussing the extra-packed "The Jungle Book: Diamond Edition," now available on Blu-ray. "Only one man in the Walt Disney Studio could cause such an abrupt change without any of the protocols, without any of the formalities, without anything but 'make it happen,' and that had to be Walt Disney."

As a story man, Norman basically became the writer of the beloved film, only with pictures, not words. "My role was a wing man. That’s what they called us in those days," said Norman. "We were in a sense the film’s screenwriters except we didn’t use laptops or word processors. We used a sketch pad and a grease pencil, but we were writing the movie."

[Related: From Fairy Tale to Feature: How Some Disney Classics Took the Long Road]

As an animator, Norman had limited exposure to the big boss, but that would all change when he was transferred to the Story Department. "That was the one area where Walt Disney focused all of his attention, and that meant I would be in meetings with Walt Disney."

Even though "The Jungle Book" was Walt's final film — he would succumb to lung cancer before the 1967 release — Norman learned a great deal working under Mr. Disney. And we learned a great deal from Norman about having such an influential boss.     

What was it was like having Walt Disney as a boss?
I always tell people he was tough and he was very demanding and he expected the best out of all of his people. But having said that, I don’t think he was a difficult man to work with at all. I knew what he wanted. I knew what he expected, and my job was to simply deliver the goods, which hopefully I was able to do.

What did Walt mean when he said, "Give me the goods"?
Well, you know, I think maybe I was a lucky kid because I grew up on Disney and I mean this literally. I saw Disney movies when I was a child. I read Disney comic books, comic strips, story books, so you might say I was already infused with Disney. Disney was in my DNA, so when Walt said, ‘This story is not Disney enough’ or this particular sequence doesn’t have the Disney Touch, I knew exactly what he was talking about.

What's the "Disney Touch" exactly?
Well, you know, there is something unique about a Disney story. A Disney story, number one has to connect with the audience. It’s got to resonate with the audience. It’s got to have sincerity. It can’t be cynical. It can’t be smart-alecky. There is a certain charm and simplicity in a Disney story and a lot of people don’t get that or can’t get that, but it’s what makes our product unique. It’s what makes it essentially Disney.

How would Walt help you get in touch with the material? How would he help you get those personalities and those characters to pop?
By the time I got to Story, Walt Disney was an older gentleman who was in his mid-60s, so he was no longer hopping around and performing and doing all the stuff that the young Walt Disney did. This Walt Disney simply sat in the chair and said whether he liked it or whether he didn’t like it. So for me it was pretty cut and dried. Either Walt liked what you showed him or he didn’t like it, and he didn’t say a good deal more than that.

How would you move forward if Walt said he didn’t like it?
If Walt didn’t like it, you would start over again. That was pretty clear. The one thing I liked about Walt Disney was he was decisive. He was very clear about what he liked and what he disliked. Some people might have a problem with that but me, I didn’t have a problem with that at all. I like knowing when I’ve succeeded and I like knowing when I’ve failed. It’s very clear. It’s very concise, and at least I know where I stand.

See King Louie sing "I Wanna Be Like You":

What was the first meeting that you sat in with him? Do you remember it?
The boss, or the director [Wolfgang Reitherman], came in my office and he looked at the [story] boards. I expected a barrage of notes from him. I expected maybe criticism. I expected perhaps a few complaints, but Woolie looked at my boards and said not a word. When he was done, he turned toward me and said, "Okay, we’re going to show the boards to Walt" and he walked out of the room. That was my first meeting with my director, who had absolutely nothing to say to me.

We pitched the boards to Walt Disney and Walt pretty much liked it. He liked what he saw and seemed satisfied with it. He only had one complaint, one criticism. He said that the sequence needed a song. Well, we didn’t have a song, but Walt said, "Not a problem. I’ll simply have the Sherman brothers write a song for you." And that’s exactly what happened.

Which sequence was this?
It was the sequence where Mowgli has a second encounter with the python, Kaa, and eventually the python is able to hypnotize Mowgli and hide him up in the treetops while he is questioned by Shere Khan the tiger. So it was a great sequence to cut my teeth on you might say. It was a great start for me. I didn’t start at the beginning. I started…this is somewhere in the middle of the film, but for me it was a great place to start and whatever I did, looking back long these many years…whatever I did seemed to satisfy Walt Disney, and you can’t do much better than that.

Did you get to see "Saving Mr. Banks"? Did you get to see Tom Hanks portray Walt Disney?
I certainly did. I was actually on the set when Tom Hanks was performing Walt Disney. I was able to give Tom some notes. That’s the cool part about having been in the room with Walt Disney. Tom Hanks, being a fantastic actor, had never had the experience of working with Walt Disney. Myself on the other hand, I was in the same room with Walt Disney so I was able to hopefully provide some insights for Tom, and he really seemed to appreciate it and he was a great guy to work with and I think he did a fantastic job of capturing a very difficult man to capture on film.

Walt never got see the final print of "The Jungle Book," unfortunately. What do you think he would have thought of it?
Well he never saw the final print but what he did see was fairly close to it. The movie was still in production when Walt passed on, but what Walt had seen was the story reels from start to finish, so in that sense he did see the final film, even though he didn’t see it finished in color, polished, you know, and all the recording done, and all of that. He never saw that completed film but what he did see was a movie that he was very happy with and all of us who worked on the film were just delighted that we were able to give Walt what he wanted on his final film.

Do you remember your final conversation with him?
Not a conversation because I have to remind people that I was a kid in my 20s. Walt Disney was a man in his mid-60s, so you know... we didn’t have conversations. Mainly, when I was in a room with Walt Disney, I was there to keep my mouth shut and sit and listen. I do recall Walt was not known for handing out compliments and I think that’s been probably discussed by many people who knew Walt Disney or know the history of the studio. Walt was not generous with compliments, but there were some words he might use that would make you realize you were on the right path or had done your job. If Walt would smile and say ‘That’ll work’ or words to that effect, that was considered high praise. So when Walt saw the film as we wrapped up the final act three, and Walt looked at it and said ‘Yeah. Good. That’ll work’, that meant he was satisfied.

[Related: Travel to Tom Hanks-Land With the Cast of ‘Saving Mr. Banks’]

Watch Mowgli and Baloo sing the signature song from Disney's "The Jungle Book":