The live-action epic adventure The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi, in a remarkable debut performance), a man-cub raised by a family of wolves who must leave when he learns that he is no longer welcome in the jungle because the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba), who bears the scars of Man, promises to eliminate him. Forced to abandon the only home he’s ever known, Mowgli embarks on a life-changing journey of self-discovery, guided by his stern mentor, the panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), and the free-spirited bear Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray).
During a conference at the film’s press day, director Jon Favreau was joined by actors Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Lupita Nyong’o (who voices Raksha) and Giancarlo Esposito (who voices Akela) to talk about how this film evolved, the inspirations for the visual effects, how the actors got involved, working on the stunts, and staying true to the original story and animated movie while also doing something new. We’ve compiled a list of 14 things that you should know about how The Jungle Book came together.
Director Jon Favreau said that it was the enthusiasm of Disney, and specifically Alan Horn and his connection to the Rudyard Kipling story, that made him want to sign on for this, as a fan of the animated movie. The question for him became, “If I love it so much in those other forms, why do it now?,” and he realized that the technology had come to a point where he could actually tell the story in a different way, bringing some of what exists in the imagination to the big screen.
- Avatar, Planet of the Apes and Life of Pi were inspirations for the visual effects of the film. They filmed the principal photography almost as though it were an element shoot for an effects piece, which is how this film was approached.
- Having originally met on Iron Man 3, Ben Kingsley said that Favreau sat next to him at a party and invited him to voice Bagheera for the film. He knew that Favreau’s taste and judgment, and his perception of humanity, childhood and storytelling are in line with his, so he was happy to sign on for the project.
- Lupita Nyong’o was doing press for Twelve Years a Slave when she met with Favreau, and she was struck by his compassion for the project. He had a real vision for each character, which she was drawn to.
Giancarlo Esposito was working on a trailer for a game called Destiny with Favreau, and in it, the father was reading this story to his son. Months later, Favreau then called him to ask him to get involved with the film because he remembered his reading from when they worked together. The story meant something very special to Esposito because his own mother would read it to him and his brother, raising them as a single parent.
- Neel Sethi had one audition for the role of Mowgli, and then Favreau flew him and his family to L.A., where he cast him. But they looked at 2,000 kids and were panicking that they wouldn’t find someone to anchor the story, in the way that they needed Mowgli to do just that.
- Favreau wanted the actors to perform together as much as possible because he wanted to weave the subtlety of the performance together. He wanted this to feel like a live-action film and not an animated film, so the conversations were important. So, Sethi would accompany Favreau to different locations, in order to work with the different actors.
- The way Favreau worked with the voice actors was to ask questions that would challenge them to play against things that they were used to doing, and not just be the loudest person speaking.
- Kingsley realized that Bagheera is really the voice of Kipling in the story. Kipling lost his only son in WWI, and when Kingsley and his son read letters between Kipling and his son, on the front line where he was killed, he realized that it was really Kipling that was narrating the story.
- Esposito said that it was the big dreams the story gave him as a child that allowed him to find his character now. He had wanted to be Mowgli, growing up. As an adult, the story showed him how we create relationships with each other and how important those relationships are.
Nyong’o was inspired by her own mother, in finding Raksha’s strong maternal voice. She loves and gravitates toward children, so even though she doesn’t have any children of her own, she could understand where her character is coming from. And then, seeing the vulnerability of Sethi and his love for the wolf in his performance really grounded it all for her.
- They put Sethi through his paces with the stunt team to see what kind of athlete he would be. They needed to get to the moment when his eyes would light up, so that the stunts would be believable. In order to get what they wanted from the scene where he’s running in the basin, they had him pretend he was racing to second base in baseball, so that he could understand what they were looking for.
- For Favreau, the images of Fantasia had very deep meaning for him. When presenting that film, Walt Disney wanted the audience to be able to hear the music throughout the theater, so he used something called Fantasound, but it was only available in two theaters and abandoned very quickly. So for this, Favreau wanted to bring Fantasound back and created a special mix for Atmos, where you’ll feel that the instruments are moving around the theater.
- Other than time, which is the enemy of any film that’s artist-driven, Favreau said his biggest fear was not dropping the ball for the people who love the underlying property. He knew he couldn’t take the G-rated musical for children and make it photo-real. They had to deviate, in some basic ways from that, while still preserving the soul, feel and charm of the animated movie combined with aspects of the Kipling story.
The Jungle Book opens in theaters on April 15th.