In a downtown Los Angeles studio in late 2014, Jon Favreau was watching a computer-generated panther walk on a giant monitor while behind him crews hammered together a bear cave set.
Favreau was on the set of his new film, “The Jungle Book,” a hybrid of live action and animation that Disney will open April 15. The movie, from a screenplay by Justin Marks, straddles two centuries as the photorealistic, digitally created animals deliver lines of prose Rudyard Kipling first wrote in 1894.
In mood, it draws on Disney’s whimsical 1967 animated version of “The Jungle Book,” which won over audiences with a singable Sherman Brothers soundtrack and appealingly cartoony characters.
For Favreau, the 49-year-old director of the big-budget Marvel movies “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2” and the lo-fi indie hit “Chef,” directing “The Jungle Book” is an opportunity to develop his 21st century filmmaking skills while relying on some of his strongest old-school abilities, namely a knack for casting and tone.
“We never want to make the animals express emotions in ways that their species doesn’t,” Favreau said at the time, explaining why his CG panther doesn’t ever furrow his brow. “How do you make it real? You hold a mirror up to nature. We have the breathing, the fur, the way the muscles move over the skin. The real challenge is to take all of this technical stuff and make it into an emotional experience.”
Favreau and his casting director selected newcomer Neel Sethi, a charismatic 12-year-old from New York City, to play the movie’s only human character, Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves. While the 1967 film featured expressive performers like Louis Prima and George Sanders in its voice cast, the new “Jungle Book” surrounds Sethi with an impressive group of contemporary voices, including Bill Murray as Baloo the bear, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera the panther, Idris Elba as tiger Shere Khan, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the python and Christopher Walken as King Louie, who is modified from a chimpanzee in the 1967 film to a gigantopithecus, an extinct creature that was native to Kipling’s India setting.
While their voices are human and — particularly in the case of Walken — unmistakably specific, their characters are almost photorealistic.
For Favreau, who dabbled in CGI on the first two “Iron Man” films, the technologically driven project has meant developing a new comfort level with visual effects. On his earlier movies “Elf” and “Zathura,” Favreau had steadfastly stuck to practical techniques like stop-motion animation and forced perspective.
“I’ve always been very resistant to dive into CGI,” Favreau said, citing his fears of the “uncanny valley,” an effect where computer-generated human characters cause a response of revulsion in an audience. But, impressed by advances in computing power and techniques and by the work on films like 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and 2009 “Avatar,” he felt emboldened to take on a classic tale with new tools. (As the idea to update “Jungle Book” using digital tools occurred to Disney, it also occurred to another giant media company in Burbank, California: Warner Bros., which has a similar feature film underway, “Jungle Book: Origins,” with Andy Serkis at the helm and scheduled for release in 2017.)
Favreau sought advice from Pixar’s Andrew Stanton, borrowed camera systems that James Cameron developed for “Avatar” and enlisted the guidance of visual effects supervisor Rob Legato, who worked on “Avatar” and “Hugo.”
“I tend to like puzzles and get obsessive about details,” Favreau said at his Playa Vista, California, offices. “So in that sense, directing this way suits me. We made the animated version of the movie, the live action version, the motion-capture version. This kind of movie is like a marathon, not a sprint.”
Nevertheless the new form brought new questions: “How do you create the spontaneity and chemistry in a medium that’s very rigid? How do you talk to visual effects artists? How do you set the tone?” Favreau said.
He enlisted songwriter Richard Sherman, now 87, to revisit and update some of the memorable songs he wrote with his brother Robert. “He loved the word ‘gigantopithecus,’ ” Favreau said of Richard Sherman.
Favreau declined to specify how many songs are in the film, saying, “We tried to incorporate enough of the music to meet the expectations of the audience without making it a full-on musical.”
His ultimate aim, Favreau said, is to create not just a movie but a transporting experience.
“We’ve got to make people go to the movies,” Favreau said. “We’ve got to make a case for it by showing them something they can’t get at home.”
It’s a ‘Jungle’ on screen
“The Jungle Book” has been filmed many times before, though no two filmmakers have ever been on the same page. Here’s a look at what happened each time Rudyard Kipling’s stories have hit the screen.
JUNGLE BOOK (1942)
THE STARS Sabu, Joseph Calleia, Rosemary DeCamp (yes, Marlo Thomas’ mom on “That Girl”)
THE PLOT This live-action version starred Indian-born Sabu as Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves who must adjust to life among humans after being “adopted” by villager Messua (DeCamp) who still mourns the disappearance of her son.
THE GOOD Though limited in his acting, Sabu was a natural as the lead. The vibrant production featured eye-popping Technicolor, lush jungle scenery and a gorgeous Oscar-nominated score by Miklós Rózsa.
THE BAD Critics felt the movie strayed too much from the book, most notably in its plot points concerning the true identities of Mowgli and the story’s narrator.
THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967)
THE STARS Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, George Sanders and Louis Prima lent their voices to this animated version.
THE PLOT Mowgli’s two dads — the panther Bagheera (Cabot) and the clownish bear Baloo (Harris) — disagree about sending their “man cub” to live with his own kind in nearby village. It was the last film overseen by Walt Disney, who died during production.
THE GOOD Disney’s vision was to make his version less scary than Kipling’s original. The movie’s lighthearted comedy and excellent songs, including the Oscar-nominated “The Bare Necessities,” helped make the movie one of Disney’s biggest hits.
THE BAD Many have taken offense at the Italian-American Prima’s portrayal of the ape King Louie, which came off as a minstrel-show imitation of Louis Armstrong.
THE JUNGLE BOOK (1994)
THE STARS Jason Scott Lee, Cary Elwes, Lena Headey, Sam Neill
THE PLOT After his father is killed by a tiger, the orphan Mowgli is raised in the wild. Years later, he finds a temple of riches and romance, both of which put his life in danger.
THE GOOD Lee was athletic and exotic as Mowgli, and the wildlife scenes and depictions of jungle life were stunning.
THE BAD Despite its PG rating, some scenes were too violent for young viewers. In his review, Roger Ebert described this live-action version as “an ‘Indiana Jones’ clone, an action thriller that Kipling would have viewed with astonishment.”
— Daniel Bubbeo