Earlier this week, the cast and crew of Disney’s awe-inspiring adventure The Jungle Book (out in 3D, and trust me you have to see it in 3D, on April 15) sat down to talk about the new film, the legacy that the film emboldens, and why they were so enchanted by the movie’s stunning visual take on the material. Director Jon Favreau, producer Brigham Taylor, and actors Lupita Nyong’o (who voices Raksha), Sir Ben Kingsley (who voices Bagheera), Giancarlo Esposito (who voices Akela), and Mowgli himself, Neel Sethi, were on hand for a lively and illuminating conversation. Here are 7 things we took away from the press conference.
This is The Jungle Book for a “New Generation”
When asked about why he wanted to do the film, director Favreau (who also voices one of the best characters in the film, an armadillo-like pygmy hog) said that it came from wanting to update the story for modern audiences while retaining the charm of the versions that came before it (not only the 1967 Disney animated classic, but Rudyard Kipling’s original tales). “I was compelled with the idea of what can be done with visual effects right now, and specifically what was done in Gravity, where the principle photography was treated like an element of an effects piece,” Favreau explained. “So after thinking about it, I had a take on it, and when we all discussed it, everyone thought it sounded really cool. 100 years ago was the book, 50 years ago was the animated film, and now it’s time to update it for a new generation.”
Sir Ben Kingsley Said Yes to the Film Immediately
Sir Ben Kingsley, who Favreau met on the set of Iron Man 3 (Favreau directed the first two films and appeared as sidekick Happy Hogan in the third), said the director approached him at a party. “Jon seated himself next to me with a benign smile and invited me to play Bagheera and I think I said yes before he finished his sentence,” Kingsley said. What was fascinating was that his reasons for accepting the project were much deeper than thinking that it sounded fun. He went on: “I think the captain in charge of the project brings his or her taste in the project, and I know Jon well enough to know that his taste and judgment and his perception of humanity and childhood and storytelling was completely in line with mine.” That’s a pretty great reason to accept a role.
The Key for Sir Ben Was Unlocked Later On
One of the more illuminating moments of the press conference came when Kingsley admitted that, later on, he realized that he was actually playing Kipling. This was, he said, the “secret to my performance.” “I realized much later that I am playing Kipling,” Kingsley said. “Bagheera is the voice of Kipling in the story and tragically, Kipling lost his only son in World War I in 1915. We were talking about coincidences and there’s some kind of benign matrix. And it’s definitely the spirit of Kipling.” Kingsley went into how he came to this realization: “After working with Jon, I had the experience of reading with my son Ferdinand the letters between Kipling and his son on the battlefield. Although I didn’t recognize it, an actor’s intuition is buried and you don’t realize what you’re mining as a source of inspiration until afterwards. I am privileged to be the voice of Kipling, a man I greatly admire.” He then added another insane element to this “benign matrix:” “When I was in the cub scouts my group leader was called Akela.”
It Was a Very Personal Story for Giancarlo Esposito
When describing what it was like to work on the film, Giancarlo Esposito (who Disney fans will already know as the Magic Mirror from Once Upon a Time), said it was incredibly personal to him. “My parents got divorced and I had a brother, so my mother would read “The Law of the Jungle” to us. Because it just was us three,” Esposito explained, referring to the original Kipling story (that is quoted verbatim in the new film). “It really meant something deep inside of me. So I tell my girls now, ‘Never leave a man behind.’” Fascinatingly, Esposito was hired for the job because, a year before, he had worked for Favreau on a commercial for a video game that coincidentally had the actor reciting passages from The Jungle Book. “What was so surreal was that they had a parent reading a bedtime story and he was reading “Law of the Jungle” from The Jungle Book,” Favreau said. “And I remember him reading ‘The strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack.’ A year later I remembered him reading that, so it’s very hard to not think there’s some kind of guiding force.”
Jon Favreau Employed a Surround Sound Technique Developed for Fantasia
This is one of the cooler things gathered from the press release: the fact that Jon Favreau, in 2016, employed a surround sound technique that Walt Disney developed leading up to the release of Fantasia called Fantasound. “The Fantasound thing was something I have been bugging them about a lot,” Favreau admitted. “There’s something about Fantasia that really speaks to me, especially Night at Bald Mountain. The images from Fantasia—I find myself mining for a lot of things.” It turns out there are a lot of parallels between what Favreau was trying to do technologically on The Jungle Book and the kind of next-level innovations Walt would frequently experiment with. “Walt was always concerned with cutting edge technology, through multi-plane and Fantasound. Walt had a vision to put the audience in the middle of the music. I think they only did it in two theaters, but they put speakers all around the theater, which was a tremendous amount of money. And I remember when I was talking to my sound people and my composer Jon Debney. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to explore Fantasound in this movie?’ It was something that was abandoned fairly quickly. One of the sound designers said, Dolby Atmos does the same thing. Debney is a Disney guy, he knows the culture, so he leapt at the opportunity.” Favreau then described how this was accomplished and what you’ll feel if you watch the movie with Atmos. “So we put microphones on the orchestra members. When you see it in Dolby Atmos, you will feel that there are instruments that move around the theater. You will be able to experience what Walt’s vision was through this.”
Fantasound Is One of Many Disney Nods In The Jungle Book
After Favreau explained the concept of Fantasound, he was quick to point out that this wasn’t the only nod to Disney’s amazing history with The Jungle Book. (You’ll get more about this in my interview with the filmmaker.) “This is one of dozens of opportunities to tie back to the legacy,” Favreau said. “There are visual cues. As you watch it, you’ll see bits of Dumbo, there are bits of the Monstro chase from Pinocchio in there, but to me that was part of the fun of this.” But the movie isn’t a nonstop cavalcade of Disney Easter eggs. Instead, as Favreau said, “It’s about embracing the opportunity and the emotional connection from growing up with those films and seeing how much of it we could knead back into the dough of the film. Just for an excuse to talk about what Walt was going for and for people who are fans and appreciate what we’re doing—just as the Parks change and grow, so should the movies, too.” Not only was this really eloquently stated, but this attitude is what helps make The Jungle Book such a special film and a blast to watch.
For Lupita Nyong’o, This Felt Like New Territory
As fans of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (out on Blu-ray this week!) know, Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o can bring gravitas to any character, including a diminutive space pirate who runs a rowdy intergalactic pub. And for The Jungle Book, Lupita was seduced by the challenge of rendering a character completely with her voice. “The draw for me is to try out new things. Star Wars was my first attempt at motion capture and this is my first voice over role,” Nyong’o said. “I was attracted to it because Raksha is the eternal mother. She chooses to take care of this creature who is not one of her own, but as though he was.” She said that she really locked into the character only after she saw footage of Neel’s performance. “I did a session really early on and a few months later Jon called me again. But this time he had Neel’s performance captured. That really grounded the mother/son relationship for me,” Nyong’o explained. “It only made my love for him grow. It’s such a beautiful image, to see these two creatures have this very real bond.” And it’s hard not to get swept up in this bond as you watch the movie.
The Jungle Book is out in 3D on April 15.