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How Jon Favreau Channeled ‘Apocalypse Now’ for King Louie in ‘The Jungle Book’

How Jon Favreau Channeled 'Apocalypse Now' for King Louie in 'The Jungle Book'

“The Jungle Book”

Finding that tricky balance in the new “Jungle Book” hybrid between honoring and transcending Disney wasn’t easy, but director Jon Favreau certainly found the sweet spot with the King Louie sequence. It’s scary and mysterious as well as funny and mischievous. And the linchpin, appropriately enough, was “Apocalypse Now.”

“That was honestly the most challenging part of the entire film,” Favreau conceded. “If you don’t honor the original, there’s an inherent disappointment because it’s such a memorable moment. But if you go too far with that, it becomes a kitschy non-sequitur. And at this point in my career, you go by gut.”

“And so it was a great opportunity to reinvent this whole sequence while still maintaining the plot point that it served within the comedic version of the ’67 film. Also, as I did research trying to figure out what the photo-real version of this was, you come up against the fact that there are no orangutans in this part of the world. All the flora and fauna were based on real research, even the environment we built – the temple ruins – are an amalgam based on actual sites in India.

“We found incomplete remains of a creature called the gigantopithecus, which gave us a lot of freedom; plus the scale of it was compelling to me and I started thinking this was also a great opportunity for Weta because they’ve been there and back again with ‘Kong’ and ‘Planet of the Apes.’ It was mostly keyframe [as was the majority of the character animation by MPC]. We did have reference, we did have motion capture. But what I learned here is that even when you have motion capture, it may as well be keyframe for the amount of work and artistry that goes into it,” he continued.

“And then I started thinking who could it be? And I connected ‘Deer Hunter’ with ‘Apocalypse Now’ and the lighting [from cinematographer Bill Pope] and the mood and who could be a character that could ride the tone just right, where there could be menace but also humor and quirkiness? And somebody who would be a delicious cameo that everyone would be looking forward was Walken,” Favreau said.

Louie’s entrance recalls Brando’s Kurtz emerging from the shadows: calm, seductive but slightly deranged. It’s pure Walken (with a nice cowbell nod to the Blue Oyster Cult “Saturday Night Live” skit). And the fact that it frightens youngsters was Favreau’s nod to “Bambi,” especially given the fact that Louie craves the red flower (fire) for complete domination.

“To Disney-fy something in the past somehow seemed like you were lessening it. And now, as I get older and learn about his storytelling skills and how he pushed technology forward, and found a way to channel the old myths and create them in a context that was acceptable to mid-century America, he has much greater humanity to me,” Favreau said. “I listened to Walt’s conversations on the ‘Bambi’ Blu-ray about how to deal with photoreal, high-tech animals of their day. I played it for the crew and they were inspired.”

But how to incorporate the iconic song by the Sherman brothers, “I Wanna Walk Like You,” without ruining the mood? At first they went with a swing version like the original, but it seemed too much like a rug pole, according to Favreau. 

“So John Debney did many versions of the orchestral version that worked really well and felt of the tone [the swing version wound up in the end credits]. We already established music with ‘Bare Necessities’ earlier. The question was: How many songs can you get away with without it being a musical? I didn’t want to jump the rails to a different genre and diminish the stakes. And so we used the clues of what they could get away with in a Western. Two would be fine,” he said.

“And then Dick Sherman was brought in because the story points were different, and the moment he heard gigantopithecus, he said, ‘Stop right there. That’s a great word. Say it again.’ And he sat down and wrote the best verse of the song: ‘Oh, how magnificus it would be for a gigantopithecus, if a gigantopithecus like me could learn to be like someone like you.'” And Favreau played the ukulele. 

“I still find this movie delicious to watch. It’s like one of those nesting dolls – there’s so much there.”

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