Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, 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
On October 18, 1967, Walt Disney released THE JUNGLE BOOK. The animated film was a pioneering force for technological advancements in the medium and an instant classic with its beautiful artistry and infinitely catchy songs. Director Jon Favreau hopes to recapture the magic in 2016 with his live-action version which blends some of the elements from the animated film with Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories. And it appears Favreau’s crafted a perfect homage but with a refreshing kick of modern ingenuity.
At the film’s recent first look footage presentation held at Disney’s El Capitan Theater in Los Angeles, Favreau and visual effects supervisor Rob Legato (AVATAR) spoke about everything from casting, to music, to the advancing technology this film is introducing.
7. Director Jon Favreau has a passion for pushing the medium. It can be an exhilarating experience whenever a filmmaker exhibits passion for the project he’s bringing to the screen. So you can only imagine what that’s like for the hundreds of talented crewmembers Favreau has assembled here. He admitted, “This process is so technical, and so different from anything I’ve done – and quite different from anything anybody’s done before.” At first, he and his team approached making it like they would an animated film to, “really stress-test the story because you don’t want any scenes on the cutting room floor. Where we departed was we then went into a process that looked like you’re making AVATAR: we had a motion-capture volume, we had actors playing the parts, we had suits, we had sets that were lined up with what the digital set looked like. And then we captured it. First we had an animatic version, as you would on an animated film, then a motion-capture version that we edited, and then finally we took that and shot the kid as though he were an element.”
6. Finding “the kid” was a challenging process. Favreau conceded, “We looked at 2,000 kids and we found [Neel Sethi] in Manhattan. He was number 2,000. I was getting a little worried because casting is everything. Somebody – especially a kid who’s onscreen for that much of the movie, you don’t want somebody you grow tired of. You need somebody who’s gonna hold the screen that’s interesting to watch. He had a physicality and the way he moved his body around reminded me of Mowgli from the [animated] movie.”
5. Audiences won’t struggle with their suspension of disbelief. Sure, talking animals are beyond what’s actually real in our world. But because the creatures and images look photo realistic, that’s one less barrier viewers will have to struggle with when entering into Favreau and Legato’s cinematic world. Legato said his motto was, “Forget that we have a computer. Don’t use it for what a computer does well – which is photoshopped skies and larger than life kinds of things. Do it to actually create a real movie where the suspension of disbelief is easier to let go of because it looks like it could be convention film. That’s when you start to accept the story. Don’t anthropomorphize, but actually make real animals if they could actually talk the way we depict them. We used a computer, but you don’t see a computer.”
4. THE JUNGLE BOOK will be projected using Dolby Extended Dynamic Range. Quentin Tarantino gave us a glimpse into the past last December when he released THE HATEFUL EIGHT in 70mm – a now archaic format that experienced a few growing pains with its re-introduction. Favreau, however, is looking ahead to the future in hopes to get his layered storytelling across with THE JUNGLE BOOK. “There’s something really special about this. It’s laser projection. This is the first film that Dolby will be releasing widely in Extended Dynamic Range in 3D in the United States. It’s something where you pop the glasses on and the glasses go away.” And boy did it! Images were bright, crisp, clear, and colorful. Best of all, it made us feel completely absorbed in the emotional power of the narrative’s tonal scope. Favreau later said, “Big action spectacles are the only films that seem to make studios comfortable enough to use this level of artistry and technology in storytelling. The unique opportunity I’ve had is to use it for humor and emotion and showing nature and showing animals and really getting into that deep, mythic imagery that I think always marries well with technology – and always has.”
3. THE JUNGLE BOOK recaptures the magic of the original animated classic. Normally I wouldn’t even mention 3-D. However, it’s simply the only choice for this film as it, in true Disney synergistic fashion, pays homage to how technologically advanced and immersive Disney’s original was. Favreau stated, “The idea of going out to the jungle and shooting this just felt like it wouldn’t have the magic that the ’67 film had. There was a dreamlike quality to it, there was a surreal quality to it, it was a high-water mark for character animation, because of the character and the emotion and the music. I wanted to make sure we preserve that. But Alan [Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios] said, ‘Look at technology – look at LIFE OF PI and look at AVATAR. Why not use the technology to create a whole world that transports you? Why be limited by going off and shooting plates? Let’s really embrace this new technology and see what we can do if we push it to its limit.’ Thankfully, because the Disney properties have translated so well, especially going from animation to live-action, there was a certain confidence that the studio had to give me the resources that were required to do something like this.”
2. There’s absolutely no “Uncanney Valley.” The animals that populate Mowgli’s world are photo-real and, best of all, with vibrant life behind their eyes. We were shown a handful of clips that demonstrated the film’s varying visual tones – from the breathtaking majesty of the photo-real water truce sequence, to a thrilling walk-and-talk-and-then-run involving black panther Bagheera (voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley), man cub Mowgli (Sethi) and predatory tiger Shere Khan (voiced perfectly by Idris Elba), to a more comedically tinged conversation between Mowgli and bear Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray), to a darker, grittier sequence with Gigantopithecus King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken). All were a visual marvel as the animators and visual effects teams all captured the nuances of the actors who voiced the creatures. “Each animal gave us a different set of tools to use, but we didn’t want to push it into an area where it got weird,” said Favreau. “We tried to make it informative enough where you could see the soul of the actor, but not enough that it took you out of the reality of the movie.”
1. Richard Sherman’s music will spring to new life. Sherman has had a long, very lucrative creative partnership with Disney, having wrote hits for MARY POPPINS and even the original 1964 animated classic from which this is partially based. To a smattering of applause, Favreau announced, “Yes, there’s music in it, but it’s not a musical. We tried to incorporate enough of the music so that it ticked the boxes. There’s a flavor to it that I’m sure informed my taste. I love ‘Bear Necessities’’ ragtime feel. We recorded some tracks down in New Orleans for this. The choice of the music and how it’s incorporated and where it falls is something where I continue to think about a lot.”
THE JUNGLE BOOK opens on April 15.