Director Jon Favreau talks THE JUNGLE BOOK; realism, character changes & digital technology

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We finally got a proper look at Disney’s upcoming live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book on Wednesday, and it certainly looked to have a lot more to offer than just some bear necessities! In fact, it looks absolutely incredible as the live-action performance of actor Neel Sethi as Mowgli is seamlessly spliced into the photo-realistic CG creations of the animals and landscapes.

Visually and technically it’s certainly quite the departure from the beloved 1968 animated version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic story, as this seems to have a bit more of a dramatic feel simply through the fact of it no longer being a cartoon. But Disney is still aiming to try and recapture the charming magic of that film and as director Jon Favreau told Yahoo, striking that balance is no easy task.

“People expect action from this adventure. The original film felt so young. And the musical memories we have from that film [don’t] fit tonally with a film that’s photo-real, where there’s real danger and emotional stakes. The storylines and the mythology behind Kipling’s stories are very different from the animated film. Navigating those waters is one of my toughest jobs as the director.”

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The trailer ends with that iconic image of Mowgli drifting down the river on the stomach of Baloo the bear (voiced by Bill Murray) as he starts up the chords to “Bear Necessities”. But last time I checked, using bears as flotation devices was not exactly a common occurrence.

“To me the iconic image [from the original film] is Mowgli floating on the belly of the bear. And that was a challenge because the physics of it is not easy to do realistically. So we studied a lot of polar bears, buoyancy… to get it right.

“These are some of the earliest memories that I have. And it was vitally important to me to honor the images that stand out the most. But not do a carbon-copy of the original.”

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You would have noticed in that shot and others that Baloo doesn’t quite look an exact animated-to-realistic adaptation of the character. That’s because he’s now actually a different species: Baloo is now the sloth bear, native to India, which Kipling refers to in his original story, instead of the cartoonish brown bear we all know.

He’s not the only animal that got the ol’ genus switcheroo as swingin’ monarch King Louie (Christopher Walken) has now gone from a kind of goofy looking chimpanzee to something a lot more massive and almost-monstrous.

“We changed it to [an extinct great ape species called] Gigantopithecus, because orangutans don’t live in that part of the world.”

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For the mesmerizing snake Kaa though, the changes were more than just visual. In the classic film, as well as Kipling’s original text, the python is male, but here Kaa is voiced by the very womanly Scarlett Johannson. Coincidentally, Warner Bros’ own upcoming version of this story, Jungle Book: Origins, also features a lady – in this case, Cate Blanchett, as the voice of Kaa.

While I have no idea why that production chose to go that route with the voice casting (well, besides for the fact that it’s Cate bloody Blanchett!), as Favreau explained in his version, the change just came down to demographics and a little bit of “who you know”.

“The original film was a little male-heavy so we changed the character of Kaa. We thought that Scarlett, who I’ve worked with a few times, would be perfect. Her voice is so emotive.”

Emotive… and a lot creepier than I remember Kaa ever being! While I’m still not fully convinced that she fits the character – and that’s admittedly mainly because in my head I will probably always hear Sterling Holloway’s raspy voice from the animated version – the last time Johansson provided the voice of her character was in the utterly amazing Her, where she did such a completely engrossing job that I was campaigning for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her despite the fact that she’s never seen once throughout the movie.

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While I hope that she and the rest of the cast put in that same kind of performance here as well, you shouldn’t expect to see too much of the “actor” beneath the character shining through physically. Although Favreaus says these actors “bring humanity and emotion to the project to transcend the artificial nature of digital filmmaking,” there are still some pitfalls to be avoided.

“For a character like [King Louie] all of Walken’s facial expressions are worked in, [but] the further you get away from the human, the less it matters. For Baloo, if you put too much of Bill Murray’s performance completely on [the bear], you start to hit an uncanny valley. But if you watch Baloo on screen, you will see Bill Murray come through.

“But when it comes to a snake, there’s no reason to motion-capture Scarlett Johansson’s performance. If you use her performance to drive a digitally puppeted rig, the human expressions on a reptile start to look weird. It’s not the right effect. We really tried keep the performances within the believability of the animal species.”

“If you get the lighting and physics correct, your subconscious brain gets snapped into the belief mode. You feel like you’re watching something real.”

Of course they achieved that realness through some state of the art technology that was last used to bring to life some 9ft tall alien Smurf/cat hybrids. Oh and also following in the footsteps of a legend.

“…there’s a whole aspect of photorealism we’re going for. We used techniques that haven’t been used since Avatar, and we built upon those… Pretty much everything you see onscreen other than the child is digital.”

“The more you can hold a mirror up to nature, the more the myths seem to sing out. It’s following in the footsteps of what Walt [Disney] did. What Walt’s formula seemed to have been was to take the old stories, the old myths, and then use state-of-the-art technology to retell them.”

“[In the end, The Jungle Book] is really a handmade film, but the toolbox is digital. All of this, honestly, is one big magic trick just to make people enjoy watching the movie more.”

The Jungle Book also stars Idris Elba as the tiger Shere Khan, Ben Kingsley as panther Bagheera, Giancarlo Esposito and Lupito Nyong’o as Mowgli’s wolf parents Akela and Rashka. It is scheduled for release on April 15, 2016 on IMAX 3D, which Favreau describes as “its best form… Not that it won’t look cool on a phone”. However you watch it – and please, Favreau was joking about the phone! – that’s still a long way off though, so here’s that trailer again to help pass the time.

[Animated gifs via Yahoo]

Last Updated: September 18, 2015

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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