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Today, Disney unveiled the first teaser for Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, an eye-popping blend of live action and photorealistic CGI that promises to make Mowgli’s sojourn through the bush much more thrilling this time around. (Watch the clip above.)
The latest in the Mouse House’s remake parade, The Jungle Book is inspired by the jazzy 1967 cartoon classic, itself loosely based on a series of Rudyard Kipling stories about a young boy raised in the wilds of the Indian subcontinent.
The 1-minute, 46-second clip opens with quick cuts of the jungle canopy, a river, and then our young hero Mowgli (Neel Sethi) listening to seductive hiss of Kaa the python: “Are you lonely here? What are you doing so deep in the jungle?” The menacing snake is far cry from the googly eyed goof in the 1967 film and, in another departure, is female, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.
“The original film was a little male-heavy so we changed the character of Kaa,” says Favreau, who exclusively invited Yahoo Movies to screen the 3D version of the trailer at his production suite in the heart of Los Angeles’s Silicon Beach. “We thought that Scarlett, who I’ve worked with a few times, would be perfect. Her voice is so emotive.”
“Poor, sweet little cub, I’ll keep you close. Let go of your fear now,” Kaa says, continuing to entrance the boy as a series of images flashes by, at once familiar and new: Shere Khan the terrible tiger returning to the jungle; Bagheera the black panther discovering the orphaned baby boy; Mowgli and Baloo sauntering through the woods; the elephant army; the monkey minions of King Louie, the primate overlord obsessed with humans; Shere Khan and Bagheera facing off; a jungle engulfed in flame.
Explains Favreau: “People expect action from this adventure. The original film felt so young. And the musical memories we have from that film [don’t] fit tonally with a film that’s photo-real, where there’s real danger and emotional stakes. The storylines and the mythology behind Kipling’s stories are very different from the animated film. Navigating those waters is one of my toughest jobs as the director.”
The clip concludes with two deliberate callbacks to the animated feature. Kaa’s lethal entreaty, “Trussst in me,” and the crowd-pleasing coda: Bill Murray’s Baloo whistling “Bare Necessities” while floating down river with Mowgli along for the ride.
“To me the iconic image [from the original film] is Mowgli floating on the belly of the bear,” says Favreau, who insisted on including that shot in his film. “And that was a challenge because the physics of it is not easy to do realistically. So we studied a lot of polar bears, buoyancy… to get it right.
“These are some of the earliest memories that I have. And it was vitally important to me to honor the images that stand out the most. But not do a carbon-copy of the original.”
Some of the changes are evident right there in the trailer. These animals aren’t cartoonish anthropomorphs. Each is painstakingly crafted to look like native Indian fauna. Baloo now resembles the sloth bear of Kipling’s original stories, not the brown-bearish comic relief of the ‘67 version. King Louie is no longer a scat-singing orangutan.
“We changed it to a Gigantopithecus,” explains Favreau, referring to an extinct great ape species, “because orangutans don’t live in that part of the world.”
That attention to detail drives Favreau, who happily nerds out over the tech involved in The Jungle Book. “We wanted to get a taste of what the movie is like out to people. Because there’s a whole aspect of photorealism we’re going for. We used techniques that haven’t been used since Avatar, and we built upon those…
“Pretty much everything you see onscreen other than the child is digital.”
The entire film was shot in native 3D, and Favreau hopes fans will opt to see it in theaters on 3D Imax — “its best form” — when it comes out April 15, 2016. “Not that it won’t look cool on a phone,” he adds with a chuckle. (The 3D version of the trailer, which features slightly different cuts from the above clip and a much more immersive Avatar-esque experience, will be shown this weekend before 3D and Imax screenings of Everest.)
Aside from newcomer Sethi, Johansson, and Murray, the stellar voice ensemble includes Ben Kingsley (Bagheera), Idris Elba (Shere Khan), Christopher Walken (King Louie), Lupita Nyong'o (the she-wolf Raksha), and Giancarlo Esposito (Akela, leader of the wolves) — all actors that Favreau says “bring humanity and emotion to the project to transcend the artificial nature of digital filmmaking.”
Ultimately, though, Favreau was a stickler about how much of each actor was manifested in the creatures.
“For a character like [King Louie] all of Walken’s facial expressions are worked in,” explains Favreau, “the further you get away from the human, the less it matters. For Baloo, if you put too much of Bill Murray’s performance completely on [the bear], you start to hit an uncanny valley. But if you watch Baloo on screen, you will see Bill Murray come through.
“But when it comes to a snake, there’s no reason to motion-capture Scarlett Johansson’s performance. If you use her performance to drive a digitally puppeted rig, the human expressions on a reptile start to look weird. It’s not the right effect. We really tried keep the performances within the believability of the animal species.”
“If you get the lighting and physics correct, your subconscious brain gets snapped into the belief mode. You feel like you’re watching something real.”
The director name-checks James Cameron, George Lucas, and Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital as influences on his Jungle Book visuals. But, from a guy whose Apple Watch sports a Mickey Mouse face, Favreau can’t help but mention another pioneering filmmaker. “The more you can hold a mirror up to nature, the more the myths seem to sing out. It’s following in the footsteps of what Walt did. What Walt’s formula seemed to have been was to take the old stories, the old myths, and then use state-of-the-art technology to retell them.”
While he has no problem rattling off terms like ray-tracing and pace rig, Favreau insists that, in the end, The Jungle Book “is really a handmade film, but the toolbox is digital.”
“All of this, honestly, is one big magic trick just to make people enjoy watching the movie more.”