When it comes to movie animals that can enunciate and articulate, gab and prattle on, chew the fat and belt out a song, Jon Favreau, director of “The Jungle Book,” knows what he’s talking about.
“There’s a lot of bad CG [computer-generated] talking animals out there,” says Favreau. “If you go wrong with the talking animals, the whole movie falls apart.”
In his version of “The Jungle Book,” which opens Friday, the animals do talk. A lot.
Published in 1894, Rudyard Kipling’s collection of animal fables (written while the author lived in Vermont, of all places) has been adapted for the big screen more times than a tiger can count on one paw. Live-action versions — from its first adaptation as a 1942 Technicolor spectacle to two movies made in the 1990s — have avoided the talking animal problem by rerouting the story away from Kipling’s critters and focusing it on human relationships. Walt Disney’s beloved 1967 musical solved it through animation; bears, snakes, and monkeys not only speak, they sing and dance.
Now, almost 50 years after that venerated cartoon, comes a new Disney version with creatures that truly “walk like you, talk like you, ooh-bi-doo,” to paraphrase the head ape from the original Disney film.
“There’s an opportunity to do something special, thanks to the technology available,” says Favreau by phone from a Los Angeles hotel. An actor in such diverse movies as “Swingers” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Favreau is also known for directing the kids’ movies “Elf” and “Zathura: A Space Adventure,” superhero and action films including “Iron Man” and “Cowboys & Aliens,” and adult fare like “Chef.” “I think it’s time to update the story and the themes a little bit for this generation.”
Favreau’s iteration of “The Jungle Book” stars newcomer Neel Sethi as the man-cub Mowgli, the only live-actor role in the film. A herd of established stars lend their vocal talents to a menagerie of computer-generated mammalian and reptilian characters. Ben Kingsley plays panther-mentor Bagheera, Bill Murray is Baloo the freewheeling bear, and Lupita Nyong’o voices mama wolf Raksha. Mowgli’s adversaries include Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, a hypnotizing python; Christopher Walken (who also sings a little) as the giant orangutan King Louie; and Idris Elba as the villainous tiger Shere Khan. Raised by wolves, Mowgli is pursued by Shere Khan and must escape the jungle. Of course, it’s not that easy to leave.
Favreau’s take on the coming-of-age adventure isn’t inclined to serve up goofy animals with big eyes and the kind of exaggerated features seen in most kiddie fare. He wanted Bagheera to move like a real panther, Shere Khan to pounce like a real tiger. He admired movies like “Babe” that used animatronic and real farm animals. But wilder ones? “You see movies like ‘Life of Pi’ and you realize that it could be done [digitally],” says Favreau. Still, he wondered, “Could you do it consistently over the course of an entire movie without any photographic reference on the set?”
Upping the ante, these beasts also needed to speak realistically. Favreau’s solution was to limit the ways that animators could manipulate expressions and body language, allowing only what was “naturalistic to those particular species.” The filmmakers even took into consideration the phonemes (distinct units of sound) that a real animal is able to make. It all “contributes to the believability of the talking,” says Favreau, 49.
Chosen after a worldwide search of 2,000 kids, Sethi had never performed in films before being cast as Mowgli. “[Favreau] taught me everything I know, ” says the actor, who was only 10 at the time of the nine-month shoot. “He told me not to overact.”
In addition to advice, Sethi also racked up some frequent flyer miles. “Me and Jon Favreau flew to Martha’s Vineyard on a private jet to meet Bill Murray,” Sethi recalls. “We played football and ate brisket.”
Ultimately, Sethi’s live-action performance, captured on a green-screen set, was combined with the digital animals and blended into intricate CG environments based on 100,000 photographs of actual locations in India. The result -- thick jungles, towering trees, raging rivers -- looks nothing like a cartoon. Think “Avatar”: a lush, photo-realistic world seamlessly combined with animated characters that are levels above the realism of the bear from “The Revenant.”
While inspired by the 1967 “Jungle Book” movie, the remake isn’t a musical (despite a couple of nods to indelible songs like “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You”). Favreau says his version delves more into the mythology and themes of the fables. “It’s walking its way back to Kipling in tone.”
Those original tales, full of morals like “For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack,” may seem old-fashioned to the modern ear. But “kids do read them,” says Carole Horne, general manager of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. She’s seeing an uptick in Kipling sales of late. Partly, she assumes, “because of the movie.”
That squares with the experience of Jackson Gillman, who has been performing Kipling’s whimsical tales at Naulakha, the Brattleboro home where the author lived for four years during which he penned “The Jungle Book.” “It’s hard to say what ages most appreciate these timeless stories,” wrote Gillman in an e-mail. “Adults enjoy the sophisticated humor and wordplay that is sprinkled throughout, and all ages are engaged by the playful animated characterizations.”
That broad consumer demographic is music to a filmmaker’s ears, and Favreau is candid about aiming for that “sweet spot” when, he says, “the older brothers and sisters and the younger brothers and sisters and the parents are all digging the movie at the same time.”
If that happened, Jon Favreau would truly be the King of the Swingers, the jungle V.I.P. Ooh-bi-doo.Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.