‘Jungle Book’ Marks a Return to Disney for Composer John Debney

John Debney Jungle Book
Dan Goldwasser

For composer John Debney, scoring Disney’s upcoming “Jungle Book” remake felt like coming home.

That’s because Debney, who has worked on approximately 100 films, earning an Oscar nom for “The Passion of the Christ” and creating music for box office hits like “Iron Man 2” and “The Princess Diaries,” practically grew up on the Disney backlot.

“I was a Disney brat,” he says with a laugh. His father, Louis Debney, worked there for more than 40 years, starting as a clapperboy on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and eventually becoming a producer on TV shows such as “Zorro” and “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.”

As a boy, John Debney hung out with legendary Disney songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman, and his first job out of college was in the Disney music department.

While he has, over the years, scored numerous Disney films (including “The Emperor’s New Groove,” “Chicken Little” and “Princess Diaries”), the nearly all-CGI “Jungle Book” was the one he had waited for — and a movie where music would play a critical role.

“You’re dealing with vast stretches of no dialogue, just beautiful scenery and characters going from one place to the next,” Debney says. “Music really has to tell the story.”

This is Debney’s fourth film for director Jon Favreau. Says the director: “Music done effectively, as Walt Disney discovered, can bring the human touch to something that’s essentially artificial. In his case it was animation. In ours, the environments are computer-generated and the animals are as well.” (Only Mowgli, played by Neel Sethi, is real.)

Familiar songs from the earlier Disney film make a comeback, Favreau adds. “(The score) has to pay homage to people’s deep musical memories from watching the animated feature,” he says. “It has to expand upon that and service the tone of this film, which varies from funny to adventurous. It also has to bring an analog humanity to a film that’s essentially born of technology.”

Debney came aboard a year ago to supervise the new song recordings: “The Bare Necessities” by Bill Murray as Baloo the bear, “I Wanna Be Like You” by Christopher Walken as King Louie and
“Trust in Me” by Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the python. Richard Sherman — who remembers both Debney’s dad and Debney as a boy on the lot — penned new lyrics to “I Wanna Be Like You.”

For the score, Favreau wanted “classic Disney,” Debney says, “a timeless score with the correct cultural influences.” So in addition to his 104-piece Los Angeles orchestra and 50-voice choir, Debney added soloists playing Indian tabla percussion, bamboo flutes and other exotic instruments.

Although the composer wrote themes for the elephants, the tiger Shere Khan (played by Idris Elba) and the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), it is Mowgli’s theme that’s the centerpiece of his 84-minute symphonic score.

“Everything in the film is from Mowgli’s point of view,” Debney says. “He is learning the lessons he needs to become a man.”

The orchestra applauded the first run-through of Debney’s powerful finale.

The composer reflected on the experience a few weeks later at his Burbank studio. “This one was different, because of my deep emotional connection with it,” he explains. “That translated to the musicians. On the last few notes of the last cue we played, we were all crying. Now, I’ve done this for almost 30 years, and that doesn’t happen.”

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