It's been over a year since I was lucky enough to step foot onto the set of Disney's The Jungle Book, but the feeling of seeing movie magic on an unprecedented scale has settled itself pretty deep in my memory bank.
Also, meeting a director as talented, innovative, and modest as Jon Favreau is a treat that comes along once in a blue moon.
Favreau, his production partner Brigham Taylor, and the lovely folks at Disney welcomed us into their fantastical jungle setting, conveniently hidden within a warehouse studio in Downtown Los Angeles. Here, they showed us the daring feat of filmmaking that they had been working on since 2013.
This live-action version of Disney's 1967 animated classic will give audiences a darker, grittier look at the story of Mowgli, a young orphaned boy.
The days of dancing bears and goofy pachyderm parades may be gone, but in their absence comes a story that Jon Favreau promises will resonate on an emotional level, while still maintaining the elements of fun and comedy.
"I tend to like movies that make me feel something. I love the very pure myths, and there always seems to be a certain type of emotion."
In addition to drawing inspiration from Disney's adaptation, Favreau also turned to the source material, Rudyard Kipling's version of The Jungle Book, which included far less singing and far more danger. By using new technology, Disney has been able to capture the danger that was seemingly ill-fitting in the 1967 version, while still keeping it a family-friendly film.
"You want it to be a coming of age story and it’s at its heart what it is. I think from the Kipling what was nice was the jungle was really dangerous...And in this there’s peril to living in this real world, and the more photo-real we make it, the more you feel that danger and the more immersive it is."
To be honest, The Jungle Book should draw a crowd based on casting alone. The film's billing includes Bill Murray (Baloo), Christopher Walken (King Louie), Lupita Nyong'o (Raksha), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa), and Idris Elba (Shere Khan), all working under the legendary Disney banner.
Although hearing Bill Murray voice Baloo and Christopher Walken as a giant orangutan king is enough to put butts in seats, The Jungle Book has far more to offer than just its stellar A-List cast.
But a true testament to a great film comes from its ability to take a great cast and elevate their performances with certain tools. Jon Favreau spoke about being able to use cutting edge technology to bring a new dynamic to the film.
"Chris Walken and Bill Murray and just making those guys come to life and working with them over and over again, it’s a real dream come true and to use all these toys. That’s the nice part about the big ones. Whatever technology has to offer you have access to and how could you best tell a story with those tools."
In addition to working with some serious Hollywood veterans, Jon Favreau and Disney were willing to take a risk on Neel Sethi, an unknown 10-year-old chosen from thousands of auditions, to play the daunting part of Mowgli. According to the director, the decision was almost instantaneous.
"First and foremost, [Neel] was extremely watchable and charming when I saw his tape, and it’s like Moneyball, you just pick somebody who’s got a good swing already."
After seeing some footage and watching scenes filmed before our very eyes, it was clear that Neel has enough talent and moxie required to play Mowgli. And for Favreau, it was all about nailing the emotions he so strongly wants to convey.
"When you’re watching one kid for a whole movie you don’t want that kid to be grading or you don’t want his charm to wear thin. So there’s an authenticity to him that I really like and then it really becomes about getting those particular moments of deep emotion."
Epic adventure movies like this always take on huge risks when they involve such a high level of CGI and blue screen work, but with such a great cast in the hands a director who puts such care into their work, I think the rewards will be well worth their while.
Disney's The Jungle Book will be released in theaters starting April 15, 2016.