Director Jon Favreau can do no wrong. No one will ever be able to reopen the Jungle Book the way he did.
In his new iteration of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 story and Disney’s animated 1967 feature, Favreau melds the fanciful, tonally zealous elements of Kipling’s in with the more recognizable, comedic stylings of a Disney musical comedy. Ultimately, the film emerges with an extraordinary, plot-driven adventure movie just off enough from the 1967 one that the audience is left feeling like they’ve watched something completely new. And in a sense, we have.
Favreau’s film is visually stunning, the novelty of it rooted in its almost entirely computer-generated nature. Though the film was photo-real, all but one of the star-studded cast — which includes Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito and Christopher Walken — was computer generated. That is, the only living, breathing person you actually see in the film is newcomer Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, amid this incredible backdrop of minimal live-action sets and principal computer generation. Every leaf, every pebble, every hair on Baloo’s 15-foot body, is digitally rendered.
If the effects weren’t as fantastic as they are, those in the audience wouldn’t be able to see Walken’s face and mannerisms essentially superimposed on King Louie and wouldn’t be able to see Murray’s eyes con Mowgli into helping him get some honey. They also wouldn’t be so convinced Sethi wasn’t hanging around live animals the whole time on set — in reality, Favreau commissioned puppeteers from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to keep Sethi engaged while filming on blue screen.
Favreau’s film, from the first few notes, hits right where it has to, waxing between the reverential sentimentality of a remake and the regency of a brand new story, and, even more than it is the visuals, it’s all in the music.
The composer’s often the last one hired to a movie, with sometimes just weeks to go until the premiere, but John Debney, Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award-winning composer, was one of director Jon Favreau’s first picks with their new go at The Jungle Book. That made all the difference. In fact, The Jungle Book is the culmination of two years of intense work and incredible love and respect for storytelling. Of all people, Debney would know it best.
“My dad worked at Disney for 40 years, so I grew up as a kid at the studio,” Debney said. “When I was a young boy … I would invariably go with my dad to the studio. We’d poke around the studio, he’d show me his office, the animators’ rooms and quite often … we’d bump into this other man — this kind of very warm, loud man…and I remember my dad would introduce him as Mr. Disney. And he would always tousle my hair.”
The warmth he experienced then is what Debney brought with him to this project, and you can tell that he’d known the original Jungle Book inside and out from the first few notes of the new film, a nod to the introduction of the original.
“My job, number one, was to come up with a whole new original score,” Debney said. “And yet we decided very early…we knew we had to give the nods that we had and give our little homages. And so, as this thing progressed and morphed, [Favreau] had the idea of ‘why don’t we use this theme here.’”
Different characters came to be represented by twists on the old themes we know and love. But when “I Wanna Be Like You” started to play, the entire theater lit up. The filmmakers definitely paid their respects subtly — they created a new theme for Mowgli, present through the entire film; a few-note motif for Shere Khan with low brass and strings (he’s always lurking). Bagheera, on the other hand, got nobility with horns and strings swelling whenever he was present. Kaa’s music and Johansson’s voice were as seductive as her story, with overblown flutes and weird atonal orchestral colors. King Louie got percussion, wooden sounds and a nice showbizz lead-in. Baloo was in Dixieland for the new iteration of “Bear Necessities.”
“[Favreau] was very specific with different instruments for different characters,” Debney said. “The French horns became the elephant sound…at the end of the movie, those French horns are just glorious, and they’re playing very high and very regal.”
Debney said he was blessed with the orchestra he got to work with.
“I was given a gift,” Debney said. “I had a 105-piece orchestra and a 70-voice choir. [They were] incredible instrumentalists — you heard some of the flute work, the ethnic flutes, the big drums and the percussion. I was given a gift. I was given the greatest gift of my career.”
And the team didn’t exclusively work with an orchestra, either. To honor not only the original film but also the world culture in it, they flew to New Orleans to get a bona fide taste of the music that had so influenced Disney.
“The original was influenced by New Orleans jazz and we really wanted to honor that,” Debney said. “[We] went down to New Orleans and recorded the real guys down there. That’s what gives it such an air of authenticity. We were very aware, [Favreau] especially, of the different changes in culture over the years.”
It’s the jungle. It’s a world sensibility. And it was just wonderful. And when asked which film score he’s most proud of, Debney cited none other than this one in collaboration with Favreau..
“This one I’m most proud of because this one was a longer process and I was on it for two years, or really 40 years, because I lived with Disney as my family and in my heart,” Debney said. “That’s why I think it means so much to me. It’s a full circle journey. My dad worked there for 44 years, that’s why it’s personal for me. That’s why I gave it my very best.”
When you inevitably go see this feat of technology, consider re-watching the 1967 one first. Pay close attention to the beginning and ending, and, in this new one, to all the take-offs and landings for each character. And stick around for the end credits — you’ll be treated to something you’ve been waiting for since the first teaser trailer.