Jon Favreau was just a small child when he saw the original “Jungle Book,” but the film made a deep impression. The actor-director still vividly recalls majestic elephants on the march, the “hypnotic eyes” of the python Kaa and the man cub Mowgli riding down the river on the belly of the good-times bear, Baloo.
“You are a kid, and the cement [of your mind] is still really wet. You are imprinting very deeply,” the filmmaker said of the images from Disney’s 1967 animated film, which he said filled his childhood dreams.
Those age-old connections became both the challenge and, eventually, the blessing for Favreau when, nearly a half century later, Disney asked him to direct a remake of the animated favorite. Favreau talked about the opportunities the film presented in a meeting last month with a small audience of industry colleagues and press, while screening portions of the film, which debuts April 15.
“You are serving many masters when you make a film like this,” Favreau told the gathering at the El Capitan Theater. “You are trying to honor the memory, the emotional memory of people who grew up with this stuff. But you are also trying to make a movie that appeals to the full audience. … That is really what Disney set out to do.”
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Favreau, 49, said when Disney first asked him to reimagine the cartoon, he was less than enthused. He was not sure how to improve or expand on the original. But Disney had scored successes converting other animated classics to live action — like 2014’s “Maleficent” (from 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty”) and 2015’s “Cinderella” (from the 1950 original).
Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn encouraged the director to rethink “Jungle Book” with the kind of computer-generated imagery that had enlivened films like “Life of Pi” and “Avatar.” “Alan said, let’s really embrace this new technology and see what we can do if we push it to its limit,” Favreau recalled.
The result is a film with only one live action character — the boy separated from his family in the jungle, played by the newcomer Neel Sethi. He is nurtured and menaced by a menagerie of animals created first with an array of technologies, from animation, to motion capture and finally to live-action shots of Sethi.
“If the kid was walking 12 feet, we built 12 feet of jungle,” Favreau said. “Each set was built for a single shot.”
A one-time “luddite” known to audiences for his acting turns and effects-light films like “Swingers” and “Chef,” Favreau described his growing affinity for filmmaking that extends beyond the practical. He said it began with his directorial work in “Elf,” grew substantially when he made “Iron Man” and reached an apogee with “Jungle Book.”
Favreau’s team included visual effects supervisor Rob Legato, acclaimed for helping conceive the images in “Avatar” and other films, including “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The special effects team creating the virtual world included the Moving Picture Company (MPC) and Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital.
Favreau showed the industry crowd early tests from “Jungle Book’s” pre-production — clips of animated birds, rippling water and other natural elements. He said the work persuaded him that CGI could now be used to reach far beyond the “hard surfaces” it had created in many action and superhero films, including his “Iron Man.” “I thought, ‘If we really set it up, could we do something that took it the level where you were watching something that was either photo-real or pleasantly elegant and beautiful and hypnotic?’”
The reaction of the audience at the El Capitan – with plenty of “oohs” and “ahhs” as Disney screened chase and fight scenes and Mowgli’s meeting with Baloo — seemed to suggested the answer was yes.
Though the director and Legato focused on the technical wizardry that created most of “Jungle Book’s” images, the director said he realized they needed something more than a realistic world. So they added mythical elements — outsized animals to create a sense of awe and heightened menace from the animated original. “We play with a tone that has a lot more jeopardy and where survival isn’t necessarily a given,” Favreau said.
But technology enhanced lighter elements, too, lending some of the stars an anthropomorphic twist. Motion capture and other technology helped introduce Bill Murray’s distinctive lifted eyebrow, for instance, to Baloo. “We tried to do it enough so you would see the soul of the actor,” Favreau said, “but not so much that it took you out of the reality of the movie.”
For all the high-flying computer-generated images, though, Favreau conceded that “Jungle Book” will rise and fall largely on whether audiences connect with the lone human on screen. The director said he had begun to worry during a prolonged casting effort about whether he would find the right boy.
He had seen 2,000 children from across the globe to play Mowgli when he finally met Sethi in the summer of 2014; the 10-year-old popped up in New York.
He appears in nearly every scene of “Jungle Book.” “When someone is on the screen that much of the movie, you don’t want someone you go tired of,” said Favreau. “You’re going to need someone who holds the screen and is interesting to watch.” He said Sethi had an impishness and physicality that reminded him of the animated Mowgli he first saw on the screen decades ago.
“You have to breath life into this thing,” Favreau said, “otherwise it’s just an exercise in technology. It needs to have a beating heart in there, and that is what your cast brings you.”