Jon Favreau and Cast on Updating The Jungle Book

Jon Favreau, Ben Kingsley and more discuss bringing the classic Jungle Book to photo-real life.

With the 1967 animated film still considered a beloved favorite, why was now the right time to remake The Jungle Book, this time as a combination of live-action and digital visual effects? This was one of the topics addressed at a recent press conference for the film, which has opened this weekend to critical acclaim and huge box office potential. Based on both Disney’s animated version and the classic collection of fables by Rudyard Kipling, the film stars newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli, the young boy raised as part of a pack of wolves, while Bill Murray voices Baloo the bear, Sir Ben Kingsley essays the black panther Bagheera, Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito play Mowgli’s adopted lupine parents and Idris Elba is the villainous tiger Shere Khan.

The movie is directed by Jon Favreau, no slouch when it comes to dazzling audiences with visuals in films like the first two Iron Man movies, Zathura and even Elf. But this was above and beyond: with the exception of Sethi, everything you see in The Jungle Book is created digitally, and this adventure set in the wilds of India was actually filmed inside a 12-story building in downtown Los Angeles (the Jim Henson Creature Shop built animal puppets for Sethi to act against, but none are seen in the completed picture). The results are stunning, often jawdropping, and if nothing else, The Jungle Book sets a new benchmark for digitally created imagery.

But it was also getting at the heart of the story that mattered to Favreau. That also came up at the press conference, which featured the director, producer Brigham Taylor and stars Kingsley, Nyong’o, Esposito and Sethi. Asked why it was the right time to revisit The Jungle Book — aside from Disney making bank off live-action versions of their animated classics for the past few years — Favreau said, “A lot of it was the enthusiasm of Disney and, specifically, [Walt Disney Studios chairman] Alan Horn who’s really connected with this film, with the story, from the Kipling stories when he was growing up. I connected very much with the animated film when I was growing up. And so we had common ground of both having great affection for this property and the question became, ‘If we love it so much in those other forms, why do it now?'”

The answer was technology had come far enough at this stage to make doing The Jungle Book in live-action form a feasible and potentially transcendent experience: “I was very compelled with the idea of taking what could be done in visual effects now,” explained Favreau. “I was also very impressed with films like Planet of the Apes, Avatar, Life of Pi, as well, and, specifically, what was done in Gravity, the way that they filmed the principal photography…it became a big puzzle and after sleeping on that, thinking about it, I came up with a take on it and when I came back and we all discussed it, it sounded really, really cool. So 100 years ago was the book, 50 years ago was the animated film and now, 50 years later, it’s time to update the story for our generation.”

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But all the visual razzle-dazzle and talking animals in the world wouldn’t amount to anything without the story having heart, and for that Favreau needed a top-notch cast to bring Kipling’s characters to emphatic life. Sir Ben Kingsley said that Favreau seated himself next to him at a party and asked him to play Bagheera a couple of years ago, with Kingsley saying yes before the director even finished his sentence. Kingsley also spoke about where the character of Bagheera came from for him: “I had an intuitive grasp of something in (Bagheera) and I realized much later that I am actually playing Kipling — that Bagheera is the voice of Rudyard Kipling in the story,” he revealed. “Tragically, Kipling lost his only son in World War I, in the Battle of Loos in 1915, and we were talking about coincidences and how there was some sort of benign matrix on this film, and it was definitely the spirit of Kipling.”

Nyong’o said she was struck by the compassion with which Favreau spoke about the characters when he approached her about playing Raksha, mother of the wolfpack, and explained where she pulled inspiration for her character from: “I think my mother had a lot to do with what inspired me, because I mean she’s my example and she’s a very good mother. And I asked myself a lot of questions about what it would be like to lose one of my own. Although I’m not a mother myself, I do love children. When I was 12, I preferred to stay indoors and babysit my cousins rather than go outside and play, so there’s that part of me that’s very much alive. I gravitate towards children, and my mother was definitely someone who inspired me.”

Esposito, who mentioned being the father of four daughters, said that The Jungle Book bore a strong connection for him to his mother as well, but for different reasons: “This story came, for me, from my mother. My parents were divorced and I have a brother, and my mother would read this to us because it was us three and we had to survive. So it really meant something very deep inside me.”

“I tried to get them to perform together as much as possible,” said Favreau about eliciting the vocal performances from the cast. He explained bringing Sethi with him to meet up with some the actors in different locations for line readings. “I’ve done animated voices before and it tends to degrade eventually to, ‘Okay, just say it again louder.’ Depending on how good the filmmaker is, either they use the loudest take with the most energy and it wakes the kids up in the audience, or they can weave together the subtlety of a performance…I wanted this to feel like a live-action film and not an animated film, and part of the key was to get a very conversational performance. I know very much from being an actor that you rely upon your scene partner and the energy of a scene partner modulates your energy.”

After several years of painstaking work, The Jungle Book is now out and Favreau admitted he was eager to see what audiences thought of the film. But he was also candid about what he was most afraid of when he took the job: “Time, because that’s the enemy of any film that’s artist-driven — you yank a movie away from a group of artists a couple of month early and it’s a totally different movie. So the clock was definitely looming the whole time. Fortunately we paced ourselves well because we had experienced leadership that had done this type of thing before.

“But my biggest thing was not to drop the ball for the people who love this underlying property, and knowing inherently I couldn’t just take the G-rated musical for children and make it photo-real. I knew we were going to have to deviate in some basic, inherent ways from that, and (try to) still preserve the soul and the charm and the feeling of the first one, while including aspects from the Kipling stories and changing it from a G-rated musical to a PG-rated adventure that would have more thrills and be more exciting and scarier at times than the original, but also maintain the heart and humor and the music too.”

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