On April 15th, Disney breathes new life into their animated classic The Jungle Book with a new live action adaptation. This reimagining brings together the Disney classic with some new elements from the Kipling novel in a breathtaking, immersive film experience. But while listening to the talent and creative team behind the film, it became clear that this was no ordinary project. Could destiny have played a role in bringing The Jungle Book back to the big screen?
“Alan Horn connected with the Kipling stories when he was growing up and I connected with the animated film when I was growing up,” explains director Jon Favreau. “So we had common ground of both having great affection for this property.” When the first trailer debuted, many fans joked that it looked like The Life of Pi, with fan-made “Life of Mowgli” parody posters flooding social media. It’s no coincidence, as that film was part of the inspiration behind this one. “We looked at The Life of Pi and realized that the technology may have come to a point where you could actually tell this story in a different way.”
With the groundwork laid down, casting the jungle’s inhabitants seemed like a breeze. Sir Ben Kingsley, for example, was cast after a conversation between he and Favreau in Miami while filming Iron Man 3. “He invited me to play Baghera and I think I said yes before he finished the question,” mused Kingsley. “I think that the captain in charge of a project brings his or her taste to it. I knew Jon well enough to know that his taste and judgment, and his perception of humanity and childhood and storytelling completely concur with mine. So it was a joy to join this beautiful project of his.”
“I had an intuitive feeling, a grasp of something in [Baghrea] and I realized much later that I’m actually playing Kipling,” Kingsley discovered as he learned more about the author. “Baghera is the voice of Kipling in the story and the narrator. Tragically, Kipling lost his only son in World War I in 1915. We were talking about coincidences and how there’s some kind of benign matrix that we’re all mixing in here and it’s definitively the spirit of Kipling. After working with Jon, I had the opportunity with my son Ferdinand to read letters between the front lines of Belgium, where he was killed, and Kipling. My son and I read this exchange in front of an audience and I realized whilst reading it with my son, ‘My goodness, Baghera is Kipling.’ I didn’t recognize it. Sometimes, an actor’s intuition is buried and you don’t realize what you’re mining as a source of energy until afterward. But I’m privileged to be the voice of Kipling, who is a man I greatly admire and love. And when I was in the cub scouts, our troop leader was named Akeela.”
Speaking of Akeela, Mowgli’s wolf father, Giancarlo Esposito’s conversation with Favreau over The Jungle Book began in 2013. “Jon called me to do the trailer for a game called Destiny. In the beginning of that story, a father was reading The Jungle Book to his son. And we got to talking about the book and I’m a Kipling lover. Jon is so in touch with all of his experiences, so we had this wonderful conversation regarding it and then months later, he called me.”
In the trailer, the part of the book that Esposito read was “The Law of the Jungle.” “It’s synchronicitous. For me this story came from my mother. I have divorced parents so it was just me and my brother. And my mother would read this “Law of the Jungle” to us. It was the three of us, we had to survive. And so it really meant something very deep inside me.”
An excerpt from Kipling’s “The Law of the Jungle:”
“Now this is the Law of the Jungle —
as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper,
but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk
the Law runneth forward and back —
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,
and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”
“That became the theme,” Favreau explains. “It became something that we had at the beginning of the film and as we worked on the script, it was something that they evoked over and over again. And at the climax, it’s something that brings Baloo through his arc. An individualist who becomes part of the pack.”
While thousands of boys were seen to potentially play Mowgli, Neel Sethi only needed one audition to convince Favreau that he was right for the part. “It felt too easy, like it shouldn’t have happened that easily. I just auditioned and Jon really liked me,” the young actor recalls. To get the best performances out of all of the actors, Favreau tried as much as possible to have them record together. “I’ve done voice work before and it tends to degrade into just ‘Okay, now say that louder.’ And depending on how good the filmmaker is, they just use the loudest take, the one that has the most energy and wakes the kids up in the audience. Or they could weave together the subtlety of the performance and that’s a lot to ask of people. I wanted this to feel like a live action film and not an animated film and part of the key was to get that great conversational performance. So Neel came with me wherever we were recording.”
In addition to a director and actors whose paths felt destined to converge for this project, Favreau also made sure that they paid tribute to the lessons learned by Disney in Walt’s days. The score was recorded in Fantasound, a vision that was only realized once before on the original release of Fantasia in 1940. Composer John Debney grew up on the Disney Studio lot with a father who worked at the studio. He even spent time as a child hanging out with the Sherman brothers while they worked on the music for the original Jungle Book. “I have to say, probably the biggest contribution to all of this is John Debney,” Favreau says while complementing the composer’s score that seamlessly blends into the picture.
The recreation of Fantasound is just one of many nods to Disney’s past and Favreau hints that fans should look for references to Dumbo, Pinocchio and of course, The Jungle Book. “For me, that’s part of the fun of making these films is seeing how much of the meat we can put back into the dough of the film. And Fantasound is just one of many things I wanted to put in the film.”
“It’s hard to imagine that there’s not some guiding force to the way all of these things seemingly are,” Favreau philosophizes looking back on the whole experience. Over the course of the long shoot, the cast and crew became a family. “I rarely get sad at the end and it really took me a while. Thankfully I can go into the editing room and work on it and still be part of it, but there is a sad feeling like camp’s over. It’s beautiful, but bittersweet.”
Now that The Jungle Book is out there for all the world to love, Jon Favreau is excited about the early buzz. “It means the world to us because we worked so hard on this. But it’s not until it bounces and echoes back to us that we feel we did our job. It’s a medium; it’s a communication tool. It’s a conversation that we’re all having and it’s something that belonged to the whole culture before we decided to update it and change it. Our job is done and now it goes into the world.”