Here’s what you probably know: The Jungle Book is Disney’s latest live-action remake of an animated classic, directed by Marvel Cinematic Universe creative force Jon Favreau (director of Iron Man), featuring young newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli and an all-star voice cast as a diverse array of computer-generated animals.
Here’s what you might not know: though depicted as a live-action remake, The Jungle Book is in fact barely live-action at all. Of course you knew the animals were all 100% computer-generated, and marveled at their revolutionary believability; but you might not have realized that the backgrounds were all digitally created as well. Besides Mowgli himself, and a limited variety of set pieces such as logs, rocks, and Kaa’s shed skin, everything you saw was animated. Though the story takes place in India, not a second of filming did – all the magic happened in front of a greenscreen in a studio in L.A., every frame.
The only time I’ve ever seen anything quite like it was Disney’s visionary 2000 release, Dinosaur, and I’ve heard of 20th Century Fox’s 2013 Walking with Dinosaurs being similar. Both were box office successes, but critical flops; the breathtaking visuals both films possessed were undermined by uninspired talking animals and emotionally sterile stories. The Jungle Book perfects the formula, bringing powerful story and incredible acting to perhaps the most awe-inspiring visual experience in cinema to date; yet I’m left wondering, why did it take Disney 16 years to do it?
The Jungle Book promises the potential to make a new form of animated film that denies existing terms. A “cartoon,” if you will, that you could almost believe was a real live-action film, sustaining disbelief so well you could be convinced for a 111-minute runtime that animals do, indeed, speak and show human emotion. So when Disney came so close in 2000 with Dinosaur, why didn’t it catch on? Maybe it was simply that the technology needed more time to catch up with the ambition. Certainly, while Dinosaur was an impressive achievement in its time, The Jungle Book shows how far we’ve come.
Even now, computer-generated imagery has its limitations. What comes to my mind is the “uncanny valley” effect, that feeling you got when you watched The Polar Express, and perhaps The BFG; the surreal, eerie, sometimes nauseating sensation of viewing something that appears human but falls just shy of being quite convincing. It’s still the downside to motion-capture. But after all, animation has always had limitations, and Disney more than any studio I know of has always been on the cutting-edge of progress in animation. How long before even flesh and bone can be so convincingly animated that we can computer-generate real emotion on the faces of actors like Henry Cavill?
But more importantly, how soon will we have more movies like The Jungle Book, but without any live-action characters at all? For a while now, I’ve been joking around with my friends and family saying I wonder when Disney will remake The Lion King into a live-action movie. Now, that’s a more than feasible possibility. It’s almost inevitable. I could so easily imagine Disney redefining the animated film once again, with the first ever “live-action” film that’s 100% animated. The possibilities are boggling my mind, and I guarantee you that Walt Disney is chomping at the bit to rise from his grave and get in on this.
I don’t for a moment think that The Jungle Book has outmoded traditional animation or even “cartoony” computer animation as we know it. Hand-drawn animation isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and we can all be glad of that. But the industry is constantly evolving, and I am beyond excited about the scope of animation’s future.
And for the first time since seeing Maleficent, I’m looking forward to Beauty and the Beast next year, and Winnie-the-Pooh’s live-action remake, and the planned Jungle Book sequel. What a time to be alive.
Are you excited about what The Jungle Book promises for the future of animation?