Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Director Jon Favreau has done an absolutely remarkable job with his live-action update of Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK. He, along with screenwriter Justin Marks, effortlessly blends the thrilling stories of Rudyard Kipling with the magic and song of the animated classic. The film tells the tale of young man-cub Mowgli (played by newcomer Neel Sethi) as he’s forced to flee the safety of his home – the jungle, which, thanks to threats by tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba), has turned into a dangerous place. On his journey, he’ll encounter a mischievous bear (voiced by Bill Murray), a trance-inducing snake (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and a mob-boss-esque giant ape (voiced by Christopher Walken). He’ll also be counseled throughout by black panther Bagheera (voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley).
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, a few of the cast and crew spoke about their process in crafting such a unique masterpiece.
5. Common ground is struck between Kipling’s tales and Disney’s 1967 animated classic. Favreau said he and studio head Alan Horn shared a similar passion for combining the best things about the two major source materials. “If we love it so much in those other forms, why do it now? We saw with LIFE OF PI, technology has come to point where we can tell the story in a different way and maybe bring something that existed in [Horn’s] imagination growing up visually onto the big screen. I was very compelled with taking what could be done with visual effects now and very impressed with films like PLANET OF THE APES, AVATAR and what was done in GRAVITY – how they filmed. It’s time to update the story for our generation.”
4. Each character is given a meaty arc with gravitas. This was one of the things that impressed Lupita Nyong’o, who voices Mowgli’s mother wolf Raksha. “What struck me was the compassion with the way [Favreau] was talking about these characters. At the heart of it was the love of the story and a real vision for each character he was going to bring to life. For me, that’s what brought me.” Giancarlo Esposito, who plays Mowgli’s wolf pack leader Akela, felt this was synchronicity playing out being cast as Akela. “For me, this story came from my mother. I come from divorced parents and I have a brother. My mother would read this law of the jungle to us because it was us three – we had to survive. It really meant something deep inside me.” Favreau added, “It all came from drawing back to the Kipling [source material], drawing back to this experience. It organically evolved to that.”
3. The voices recorded together. Recording voices together is something that’s not normally done when it comes to movie-making. Not only did Kingsley and Sethi record together, so did Christopher Walken and Bill Murray. “The first time I met Sir Ben, I was recording with him.” Favreau elucidated on his process, “I tried to get them all to work together. I wanted this to feel like a live-action film – not an animated film. Part of the key was to get a very conversational performance. I know, from being an actor, you rely upon your scene partner and the energy of your scene partner modulates your energy. Scenes have to build and take shape. It’s a team sport – like a tennis match with the person you’re in front of the camera with. ”
2. Disneyphiles take note: “Fantasound” is utilized! For those who may not know Fantasound was a stereophonic technique used to get the special sound used in FANTASIA, the first commercial film released in stereo. Favreau felt the need to honor this process in JUNGLE BOOK. “The Fantasound was something I had been bugging them a lot with. There’s something about FANTASIA that really speaks to me. The images I find myself mining and referring to it a lot as I talked with visual effects supervisors. It was a very ambitious moment in Walt’s career. They were exploring many different cutting-edge technologies. Walt had a vision to put the audience in the middle of the music. I wanted to explore what Fantasound would be now. The sound engineer said, ‘[Dolby] Atmos sound has that many speakers all around the theater. There’s no reason you couldn’t use it for music. I talked to John Debney [music composer] about it and he leapt at the opportunity. With the orchestra, we isolated instruments where we could and in the sound mix, they were creating a Fantasound mix. If you see it in Atmos, you will feel there are instruments that move around the theater. That’s one of a multitude of opportunities to tie back into the Disney legacy.”
1. The original script was a parent reading a bedtime story to their child. While the final product still retains this quality only in spirit, the first draft of the original remake (before Favreau signed on) was structured with a parent reading a bedtime tale to their child. “The script that wasn’t written by me, had him reading the law of the jungle from JUNGLE BOOK. It was something set in the future with an old book. As we were developing the script I was hired for, years later, I remember [Esposito] reading that and I said, ‘That’s the guy we need for Akeela.’ The one who’s passing the law down to the next generation of wolves.”
THE JUNGLE BOOK is now playing.
Header Photo: Neel Sethi in THE JUNGLE BOOK. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.