Walt Disney Studios has done an amazing job at taking their beloved animated classics and turning them into breathtaking live action films, but when they announced THE JUNGLE BOOK was next on their list even the biggest fans were worried. It would take a lot more than magic to make this jungle come to life and many questioned if it was even possible. Last week director Jon Favreau, producer Brigham Taylor, and actors Lupita Nyong’o (the voice of Raksha), Sir Ben Kingsley (the voice of Bagheera), Giancarlo Esposito (the voice of Akela), and Mowgli himself, played by Neel Sethi came together to discuss their upcoming Disney film THE JUNGLE BOOK and we were there to get you all the answers.
Why Now? Are We There Yet?
One of the first questions that comes to most people’s minds when worrying about this remake is “Why Now?” We have seen many films where the CGI is all wrong, with this film relying solely on a made up world, is the visual effects technology at a point where this can work? For Director Jon Favreau this answer was twofold he explained:
“A lot of it was the enthusiasm of Disney and specifically Alan Horn, who’s really connected with this film, from the Kipling stories when he was growing up. I connected very much with the animated film when I was growing up and so we had common ground of both having great affection for this property. And the question became; “If we love it so much in those other forms why do it now?” As he pointed it out to me, he said ‘Look, you saw LIFE OF PI,’ you realize that the technology may have come to a point where you can actually tell the story in a different way and maybe bring some of what exists in his imagination when he was growing up, visually onto the big screen. I was very compelled with the idea of taking what can be done in visual effects now. I was also very impressed with films like PLANET OF THE APES, AVATAR, and LIFE OF PI, and specifically what was done in GRAVITY. The way they filmed the principal photography as though, almost as though it were an element shoot or an effects piece. It became a big puzzle and after sleeping on that and thinking about it I came up with a take on it. When I came back and we all discussed it, it sounded really, really cool. 100 years ago was the book, 50 years ago was the animated film, and now 50 years later it’s time to update it for a new generation.”
Welcome To The Jungle
The entire film was shot on stages in downtown Los Angeles, and if you have ever visited the city this may come as a complete shock, and is almost entirely CGI except of course for the films lead actor and only human, Mogli played by 12-year-old NY native Neel Sethi. Creating an entire jungle and realistic looking animals with movements to match is no small feet and few have done it as flawless as the effects team who helped bring this jungle to life. You will literally be transported into the tropical jungle that Mogli grew up in especially if you see the film in 3D, which I highly recommend, or you will be missing out on the real experience of the film.
This Is Not Your Mothers Jungle Book
While the 1976 cartoon was fun, I think we can all agree it was a bit more fluff then stuff, it isn’t completely faithful to Rudyard Kipling’s stories. Favreau’s version delves deeper into the original stories (some of which is quoted verbatim in the new film), animals are much more realistic which means Mogli is in much more danger. Between the realistic CGI and Idris Elba’s voice, this also makes the film’s villain Shere Khan one of scariest screen villains in a Disney film yet. While the tone is admittedly darker and stakes are higher, the viewer is now taken on an exciting and exhilarating adventure that children of all ages will love exploring.
Fantasound..Don’t Know What It Is, Don’t Worry Favreau Does.
As I listened to Favreau speak it was clear he was a Disney kid at heart. His passion and heart while talking about Walt and his vision was inspiring. Like so many others Favreau was inspired by FANTASIA and was thrilled when he was able to bring some of Walt Disney’s visions into THE JUNGLE BOOK. He told us:
“Fantasound, since it was going to be a concert film (FANTASIA), Walt had a vision to put the audience in the middle of the music and what would be required, and I think they only did it in two theatres …They put speakers all around the theatre which cost a tremendous amount of money even to this day …I remember when I was talking to my sound people and to my composer Jon Debny I said “Wouldn’t it be cool to explore what Fantasound would be now” because it only worked in two theatres, and only for the one film. I think he (Walt) thought it was something you would use in perpetuity but it was something that was abandoned rather quickly. The sound engineer said “Well Atmos sound has that many speakers all around the theatre you use it for sound effects, there’s no reason you couldn’t use it for music.’ I talked to Jon Debny about it, he’s a Disney guy he grew up on the Disney lot, he knew Walt, he hung out with the Sherman Brothers when he was a little kid, so he breathes Disney. He knows the culture and he really leapt at the opportunity and so when we were micing the orchestra, we isolated instruments when we could… so if you so see the film certainly in Dolby Atmos …you will feel that there are instruments that move around the theatre… Once again that is one of Dozens of little opportunities we were looking for to somehow tie back into the legacy. …But to me that’s part of the fun of this. It’s really just embracing the opportunity and the emotional connection that we have from growing up with these films and seeing how much of it we could knead it back into the dough of the film and Fantasound was one thing I had wanted to do just for a moment like this. Just to be able to have an excuse to talk about what Walt was going for and for people who are fans who appreciate what we’re trying to fulfill, as they do with the parks, the parks change and grow the movies should too.”
A Cast With Heart
Listening to the cast share stories was almost as exciting as seeing the film itself. Giancarlo Esposito held a special place in his heart for the original Kipling stories, he had divorced parents and his mother would read the stories to both he and his brother. He wanted to be Mogli as a boy to have the freedom to be whatever he wanted to be and found that freedom in acting. He was then cast in a commercial, working with Favreau, where he was cast as a father reading “The Law Of The Jungle” to his son. The two shared stories about their love for the property and a year later when Favreau was casting the film he knew Esposito was the only choice for Akela. If that doesn’t blow your mind this fun fact is sure to! When Sir Ben Kingsley was a boy he was in the cub scouts and his troop leaders name was Akela!
Two New Female Voices
When Favreau is behind the lens you can rest assured that there will be a powerful female presence in the film and THE JUNGLE BOOK is no different. You may remember Raksha, the wolf mother who adopts Mowgli, from the original Disney animated film, but she may not have touched your heart the way other characters did seeing as she never uttered a word so Favreau decided to change that. Literally giving Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) a voice raises the stakes and adds another level of emotion to Mogli’s journey. The moments shared by Mogli and Raksha were some of my favorite moments in the film and somehow made it all feel more grounded, a sentiment that was important for Favreau to get right even if it meant bringing an actor back in to record. Nyong’o told us:
“I did a session really early on and a few months later Jon called me again. But this time he had Neel’s performance captured. That really grounded the mother/son relationship for me. To see the vulnerability of this boy and the love that he had for the wolf. It only made my love for him grow. It’s such a beautiful image, to see these two very different creatures have this very real bond.”
Raksha isn’t the only female voice you will hear in the jungle. Favreau decided the male dominated world shown in the cartoon needed an upgrade so he gave Kaa a sex change and cast Scarlett Johansson, making the snake a little less silly and adding the sultry rasp of Johansson’s voice which fits in line with tone of the film.
Jon Favreaus’s love and affection towards Disney and this property are clear and the director literally beams when talking about this project, so it would only be natural for there to be a few Disney Easter Eggs in the film. He told us:
“There are visual cues in the film, that as time goes on and people get more familiar with it, you’ll start to notice bits of Dumbo in there, looking at the Monstro chase from PINOCCHIO inspired some of the King Louie stuff and certainly from JUNGLE BOOK. You’ll see a lot of shots that are pulled from one film into the next. “
Trust In Me, There’s Music
Baloo will still sing “Bare Necessities” and King Louie gets to sing “I Wan’na Be Like You” but just like the rest of the story the music got upgrades too, but don’t let this worry you, Richard M. Sherman, who wrote the originals 50 years ago, made the updates keeping the same feel the originals had. While you don’t get to hear “Trust In Me” during the movie if you stay for the credits you will hear all the songs, including this one sung by Scarlett Johansson herself and yes I was singing along the entire time
In animated films or live action films with voice over work the actors are usually in sound recording booths alone and barely even see the rest of the cast in the film. Some of the casts don’t even meet until doing press for their upcoming film! It is rare that when doing voiceover work on films like this that the actors are working together, but Favreau decided to bring his actors together when he could to get the best possible performances. He explained:
“I tried to get them to perform as much as I could together. I’ve done animated voices before and it tends to degrade eventually to ‘Ok just say it again louder’ and depending on how good the filmmaker is, either they use the loudest take because that has the most energy and wakes the kids up in the audience, or they could weave together the subtlety of a performance but it’s a lot to ask of people. I wanted this to feel like alive action film and not an animated film and part of the key was to get a conversational performance and I know very much from being an actor you rely upon your scene partner…Luckily Neel came with me whenever I went to different locations, I think Sir Ben was the first person that Neel worked with and of course he’s a wonderful teacher, mentor, and experienced thespian and so he was passing good habits onto the next generation, which works so well for the relationship between the two of them on screen…Getting Bill Murray and Christopher Walken together as well, I always tried to get combos and making sure that I had reference or capture data for the animators to work from.”
One thing was clear by the time I left this press conference, I’m not sure I have met a cast and filmmakers that put more heart and passion in a project then this team did with THE JUNGLE BOOK and it pours into every frame of the film. Whether it was Walt’s vision or memories from childhood this film was made with pure love. THE JUNGLE BOOK is in theatres now and you do not want to miss it!