Jon Favreau on The Jungle Book: ‘You have to do something expected and unexpected’

Neel Sethi as Mowgli in The Jungle Book. Jon Favreau in Chef, which he also wrote, directed and produced.
Nanjing Night Net

Breakthrough film: Jon Favreau, left, and Vince Vaughn inSwingers.

Jon Favreau on the future of superhero moviesMovie session timesFull movies coverage

As Disney moves through live-action remakes of classic animated movies – a trend that has already included Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent and Cinderella – fans would be right to expect certain essentials when it came to The Jungle Book.

For those who grew up with the much-loved 1967 animation, inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s stories about a “man cub” named Mowgli, who lives among the animals in an Indian jungle, there had to be some familiar talking creatures: Bagheera the panther, Akela the wolf, Kaa the python, Baloo​ the bear and Shere Khan the tiger.

And, surely, there had to be that most infectiously catchy of movie songs, Bare Necessities. “Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities. Forget about your worries and your strife … “

But when Disney offered actor-director Jon Favreau​ the remake, the killer song was missing. “I mean the bare necessities That’s why a bear can rest at ease, With just the bare necessities of life.”

That had to change.

It would be like remaking Mary Poppins without Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious​. Or The Lion King without The Circle of Life.

So in the new The Jungle Book, Mowgli (played by newcomer Neel Sethi​) goes on an engaging live-action adventure in a digitally created jungle among seamlessly animated creatures. And there are three songs.

Not just Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray) singing about why a bear can rest at ease but Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) mesmerising Mowgli with Trust in Me and King Louie (Christopher Walken) swinging with I Wanna Be Like You. “Oh, oobee doo, I wanna be like you, I wanna walk like you, talk like you …”

Talking in a hotel overlooking Sydney Harbour, Favreau says he felt the studio did not fully appreciate how much people remembered of the hit animated movie from all its many cinema and home entertainment releases over the years.

“Bare Necessities was certainly one of those things,” he says. “But there were images that were still indelibly sitting in my memory of the snake with kaleidoscope eyes and the boy and the bear riding down the river, and the friendship that developed between those characters. Also the tiger lurking in the brush watching the boy.

“I remember the images more than I remember the story and I wanted to make sure that we preserved that imagery for the people of our generation that grew up with it.”

As an actor in movies and TV shows, Favreau often comes across as a burly bear of a man. A gruff, mouthy New Yorker who looks like comic Louis C.K. with a perm.

The 49-year-old who grew up in Queens  played Eric the clown in Seinfeld in 1994 – the episode where George knocks women and children out of the way as he flees –  then made his name as writer-star of the hipster comedy Swingers opposite Vince Vaughn​ two years later.

He went on to be Monica’s UFC fighter boyfriend in Friends (1997) and has since featured in The Replacements (2000), Wimbledon (2004), all three Iron Man movies (2008-2013) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) before starring as a damaged chef in the acclaimed comic drama Chef (2014), which he also wrote, directed and produced.

But Favreau, who is much more quietly spoken and thoughtful in person, has become a much bigger deal as an all-round filmmaker on Hollywood special effects blockbusters than as an actor.

After directing the crime comedy Made (2001), which he also wrote, produced and starred in, he has gone on to make the Will Ferrell​ comedy Elf (2003), the hugely successful first two Iron Man movies, the sci-fi western Cowboys & Aliens (2011) then Chef, on which he was smart enough to cast Scarlett Johansson​ as his character’s girlfriend and Sofia Vergara​ as his ex-wife.

He has also been executive producer on all three Iron Man movies, both Avengers movies and the TV series Revolution.

Now Favreau has returned to directing blockbusters with The Jungle Book, which sees Mowgli go on an adventure when threatened by Shere Khan, who fears the danger he will be to the animals when he grows up. He meets the cheerful Baloo on the way out of the jungle before realising he has to confront the villainous tiger.

The animals look so strikingly real that it’s a surprise to learn they are all digitally created by artists who studied real creatures – watching videos, reading books, visiting zoos, consulting experts and acting out their movements – and created new computer programs to simulate muscles, skin and fur.

“The only lead character that’s not created is the boy, Mowgli,” Favreau says. “Everybody else is completely animated but we used performances and sometimes motion capture to drive the performances.”

The filmmakers looked at 2000 boys before settling on Sethi, a nine-year-old New Yorker who had never so much as auditioned for a role before. He bears an uncanny resemblance to Mowgli in the animated movie.

“You have to find a boy that can carry the movie, that you’re willing to watch for an hour and a half,” says Favreau. “And I grew up with the animated film so I had to cast somebody that evoked the memory that I had of the animated version.

“Even at the young age when I saw the Walt Disney version, I remember the kid didn’t feel like a regular child actor. Even animated, there was a real quality to the kid – he seemed to be getting into trouble, he talked back, he felt familiar to me.”

Favreau says he felt a responsibility to fans of both the animated movie and Kipling’s stories in making the new movie.

“There’s some overlap with characters and plot points but Walt Disney really took it upon himself to make it his own,” he says.

“So there was a responsibility to telling a good story for the big screen for all ages – you have to do that for a film of this size, you can’t just make a children’s movie like the original one was – and you also feel a responsibility to the people who grew up with the songs and the characters.

“The balancing act – and other filmmakers of my generation are dealing with similar issues because they’re sometimes rebooting, remaking, making sequels to established franchises – is you have to understand, and you have to be sensitive to, what the expectations might be and do something both expected and unexpected at the same time.

“That’s quite a Zen riddle of how to do that so we try out best and hopefully it’s worked out well.”

Given that Mowgli is described in the movie as a boy without a people, it’s tempting to think The Jungle Book is meant to resonate as a story about a young asylum seeker.

“We were starting this about three years ago,” Favreau says. “Current events shift a lot.

“But I will say this: when you go to the old myths and the old stories, which I think Kipling was drawing on and Walt Disney was drawing on and certainly I am, you hit themes and chords that seem to resonate throughout the ages.

“The idea of belonging or being pushed out, fitting in, coming of age, facing fear, those are very strong general themes. It’s very easy to find examples of it in every generation – certainly ours.”

A more obvious theme in the movie is the importance of community, as summed up in the wolves’ mantra that “the strength of the wolf is the pack and the strength of the pack is the wolf”.

“That’s key,” says Favreau. “That’s a strong theme that seems to emerge in everything that I’ve worked on, even the Iron Man films – the individual versus the collective and faith versus fear.

“Those are themes we seem to wrestle with as a species: how we work together. Do we put the group ahead of the individual? Do we face our fears? Do we have faith in moving forward?

“This [story] is about a boy becoming a man and also how he fits in with nature.”

Although he hardly seems the fantasy game type, a college drop-out who moved to Chicago to become a comedian early in his career, Favreau believes the role playing board game Dungeons and Dragons helped turn him into a storyteller.

“The skills you come up with through role playing – now kids are doing it more online with computer games – you’re opening your mind up to new worlds,” he says. “Back when I used to play, you just had dice and a pencil and paper and your imagination so you were building worlds and building characters.

“Then I did improvisation in Chicago which was related in a way where you were creating stuff with your imagination and really storytelling comes down to that same skill set.”

A father of three children – he married Joya Tillem​, a doctor, in 2000 – Favreau believes video games can be a positive influence on young minds.

“I’m pretty optimistic in general,” he says. “And although there are setbacks from time to time, technology is something I tend to embrace.

“The storytelling that comes from video games and the imagination and the stimulation – the way I’ve seen my kids interact with it – I’d say it’s a positive.

“Kids are seeing non-linear stories being told, they’re solving puzzles. They’re more actively engaged when they’re being entertained. They’re reacting. They’re using their fingers and minds.

“I think that kids get bored easily and the more you engage their minds the better. Video games – the right ones – certainly tend to tap into that.”

The Jungle Book opens in Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory on April 7 and in NSW, Western Australia, South Australia and the ACT on April 14.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Comments are closed.