Just as George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” James Cameron’s “Avatar,” Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” and Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” were cinematic groundbreakers for the ages, I believe Oscar voters should take Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” more seriously.
Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks took Rudyard Kipling’s classic tales of Mowgli and his brothers and, with help from James Cameron and Martin Scorsese’s go-to VFX master Rob Legato, created a seamlessly natural digital world with many vibrant animal characters — and one live boy (Neel Sethi).
Maybe Favreau makes it look too easy. This isn’t fantasy-world “Avatar.” This is digital India. He calls up fond memories of Disney’s 1967 animated musical, weaving in a couple of songs and creating a grand set piece led by Christopher Walken as a giant ancient orangutan (gigantopithecus, to be exact).
So what if this is a family film? Audiences around the world recognized its universal appeal to the tune of $964 million. Favreau is one of the most capable directors working in Hollywood. Who else would credit his research on the scruffy sleeper comedy “Chef” with helping him to learn how to work with VFX houses?
Yes, “The Jungle Book” might win Rob Legato an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, as well it should. But that and composer John Debney’s score could be the movie’s only Oscar nominations. The Art Directors Guild also gave it a nod. But astonishingly, the DGA did not nominate Favreau, nor did the PGA grant it Top Ten status. (Disney did not do much to promote the cause.)
That’s because it’s falls into the Disney family-movie ghetto — along with “The BFG,” “Queen of Katwe,” and “Pete’s Dragon.” And Favreau and Legato did such an amazing job with the naturalistic, immersive jungle environment and animated characters that most people take the accomplishment for granted.
I spoke to Favreau on the phone about the challenges he faced on this movie. He recognized the pitfalls of trying to believably place one human boy in an entirely digital, naturalistic environment.
Here’s how Favreau orchestrated a massive team of creative artists with one common goal: create a cohesive, entertaining, populist narrative.
Manage multiple VFX houses. “The director is collaborating with hundreds of wonderful artists,” Favreau told me. “You’re the keeper of the tone. You may have a beautiful equine shot or character design, but you have to be the one who sees why it doesn’t fit into the larger picture of what the movie is, be aware of how the movie rides through, where the crescendos are and the quiet parts, keep it in your head. When something doesn’t fit, you have to direct them on how this puzzle piece fits into the whole mosaic of the movie.”
During the filming of “Chef,” Favreau learned how to run a kitchen, which helped him as a director, along with being a father. “The chefs have a similar challenge achieving their vision as an artist. I have to create a sense of consistency from one scene to the next, with character arcs; often… different vendors are working [the same characters]. The ways to communicate are different. Sometimes you inspire, or demonstrate, using every trick you can to create a sense that you’re a team working toward a common goal. It requires long hours and a lot of work.”
In order to keep all these balls in the air, Favreau had to imagine what a given scene would look like from the vantage point of an audience member, he said. “I’d read the sequence through the eye of my son.”
Legato built on and advanced effects techniques from “Avatar” and “Gravity.” “The movie is a bit of a Frankenstein,” Favreau said. “It worked.”
Amuse a child actor on an empty set. The director drew on his experience as a dad. “Kids are smart,” he said. “You can be sophisticated when you communicate with them, you don’t have to dumb down, it’s about keeping them engaged. As long as they are learning and having fun, they’ll show aptitude. If you lose them, they could drift. I engaged puppeteers on set, and made the environment like a big gymnasium. We did stunt work with foam tubes and mats, showing a cut of the film on the other side of the curtain, so he could see how the full shot fits in. It was an intensive film training experience too, as he was watching shots while we were filming, which we cut in immediately with motion capture.”
Honor the 1967 animated musical. Unlike his progeny, Favreau grew up with the 1967 classic, which had a very different tone from his live-action movie. “I had to find a way to incorporate both takes on the material, knowing we are doing a live-action film in appearance, and knowing certain things play in this medium more intensely than a cel animation film from 1967. I had to juggle all those things. I felt strongly that we needed certain images and songs mirrored to connect us to memories of the original and make it feel that we could uphold a tradition that grown ups were connected to.”
Lean into the music. “The big thing was realizing how important the music was for both tone and an emotional connection to the characters,” said Favreau, who showed his family a version of the movie and was asked where the song was. “We snuck in ‘Bare Necessities’ when we were developing the script. It felt odd to add the songs into the middle of a movie which is not a full-on musical; it comes back to tone. The song belongs there and has to be acknowledged. We recorded the song for the end credits. We shifted gears later in the process as Debney reimagined it as a more haunting piece of music. It all feels inevitable now but at the time we were exploring unexplored territory.”
Animate big characters. Favreau grew up “seeing Baloo as a mentor trickster figure,” he said. “He really seemed rough, but deep down you know he cared and had tremendous heart and loyalty. He’s the one I felt the most connection to as a kid. It was like seeing ‘Meatballs’ when I was a little bit older. Bill Murray set the tone for how his archetype is perceived, as avuncular but a little unpredictable, subversive but also loyal and dependable. You need someone iconic to play that bear, otherwise it would pale against the original.”
With the King Louie sequence, Favreau saw an opportunity to add overscale Kaiju action to the original; they recast him as a gigantopithecus, modeled after Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” a daunting figure emerging from the shadows.
Ask Pixar. And, like all smart people at Disney, Favreau leaned on the Pixar brain trust. He took a rough assemblage of animatics to show at Pixar — a process familiar in animation — for feedback. “You can watch it in pencil before you start laying in cameras, making creative decisions before the work gets to the expensive part,” he said. “These wise, talented people gather together for a brainstorming session. It’s great to have that mountain of experience and brainpower at your disposal. They could help with jokes, talk story, dialogue; they’re not kidding around. Everything is about story to them. The big mantra of Andrew Stanton is: ‘Make me care.’ The idea is you’re coming to a movie theater to make them care, pull them through the journey. It was like going back with fresh horses and new ideas. I love it up there. Even as a tourist or guest to go there and be replugged in, to be part of the Willy Wonka factory up there as a film fan. Like the Skywalker Ranch, it gets my geek hackles up.”
Hope for the best. Favreau knows, some projects turn out well, others don’t. “Movies are scary,” he said. “The good ones and the bad ones feel the same when you’re making them. I’ve had my share of disappointment, pouring so much in, asking so much of people who want to come up with something we can be proud of. That’s what we’re in it for, so people will spark and tell you they liked it. It’s filmmakers and the audience, it’s not a one-sided thing; it’s a medium of communication. Connecting to the audience: that’s the part that’s most exciting finally.”