Feats Of Technical Magic Bring Disney's New 'Jungle Book' To Life

Apr 15, 2016
Originally published on May 10, 2016 3:08 pm

A new version of a classic Disney animated movie, The Jungle Book, opens Friday. It features a live-action Mowgli and digitally created animals. The new movie is a feat of animation and technical magic — the new smoke and mirrors of Hollywood. Combining multiple animating techniques into a seamless, life-like experience in the jungle, director Jon Favreau called on some of the industry's biggest talents to bring Rudyard Kipling's animals to life.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When you think of "The Jungle Book," you might think of the actual book - Rudyard Kipling's stories about a little boy raised by wolves - or you might remember this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUNGLE BOOK")

PHIL HARRIS: (As Baloo, singing) Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities.

SHAPIRO: The cartoon version - the last animated film that Walt Disney personally supervised - will soon be half-a-century old. So the Disney organization is revisiting "The Jungle Book," this time with state-of-the-art digital technology. In a moment, NPR's Mandalit del Barco will talk with the director about the film's technical wizardry. But first, critic Bob Mondello has a review.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The camera pulls back from Disney's Cinderella castle logo - and old-looking, animated one - directly into a very real looking 3-D jungle - critters, plants, waterfalls and one little flesh and blood boy, Mowgli, running for his life, scampering up tree trunks, swinging from vines to get away, the camera careening after him also trying to get away from the huge black panther that leaps when the boy loses his footing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUNGLE BOOK")

BEN KINGSLEY: (As Bagheera) If you can't learn to run with the pack, one of these days you'll be someone's dinner.

MONDELLO: Bagheera, voiced by Ben Kingsley, but persuasively furred, clawed and ferocious, is Mowgli's guardian. He found the kid as an infant and got a wolf pack to raise him. Now, though, the little man-cub is big enough that he's attracting attention - negative attention -from a Tiger voiced by Idris Elba.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUNGLE BOOK")

IDRIS ELBA: (As Shere Kahn) When was it we came to adopt man into the jungle?

GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: (As Akela) He's just a cub.

ELBA: (As Shere Kahn) A man-cub becomes man, and man is forbidden.

MONDELLO: To spare the pack, Mowgli sets off on his own, encountering assorted dangers - Scarlet Johansson's seductive snake.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUNGLE BOOK")

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Kaa) Are you alone out here? That's not good.

MONDELLO: Christopher Walken's hulking orangutan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUNGLE BOOK")

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN: (As King Louie) I am the king of the Bandar-log.

MONDELLO: Bill Murray's ferocious-looking bear, Baloo.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUNGLE BOOK")

BILL MURRAY: (As Baloo) Relax, kid. No need to get worked up, OK?

MONDELLO: Occasional jokeyness (ph) aside, there's more at stake here than in the cartoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUNGLE BOOK")

NEEL SETHI: (As Mowgli) Hello?

MONDELLO: Mowgli losing father figures right and left...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUNGLE BOOK")

SETHI: (As Mowgli) Who's out there?

MONDELLO: ...Not to mention nearly getting pummeled by a mudslide, trampled in a stampede. The real-world stuff Leo DiCaprio did in "The Revenant," 10-year-old Neel Sethi does plenty persuasively in "Jungle Book's" digitized world, a world that "Iron Man" director Jon Favreau had me so fully accepting as real that, about an hour in, when Baloo started singing, I confess it bugged me. And, yes, I know - animals talking, no problem, animals singing, not realistic - is not a defendable position. Shift in tone sounds better. But really, I'm grasping at straws, even as I marvel at a genuinely astonishing visual experience about which the most genuinely astonishing thing may just be the last line in the credits. I'll let Mandalit tell you about that. I'm Bob Mondello.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: As the credits roll, the phrase reads, filmed in downtown Los Angeles. The movie features only one live actor, who performed in front of a blue screen on sound stages. As Mowgli, Neel Sethi was shot reacting to puppeteers from Jim Henson's Creature Shop. They stood in for the animated characters. The first-time actor offered this explanation to reporters at a press conference for the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SETHI: It looks like I'm climbing. I'm always climbing, and it's, like, 400 feet off the ground. But I can only be 30 inches off the ground, so it's just a blue pad, and it looks like it's so, like, far down, but it's really not.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: The crew only had to build a few partial sets - branches, paths, tall grass, whatever Mowgli's body would touch or would cast a shadow on him. But the rest - the lust Indian rain forest, trees, vines, moss, waterfalls - all of that was created through the magic of 3-D, computer-generated imagery. Special effects supervisor Rob Legato says it was all rendered to be photorealistic.

ROB LEGATO: Leaves and dirt and dust and all that stuff all has to catch light, all has to look like it would be real. Basically because it's all a visual effect - although we're trying to blur the line between what's a visual effect and what's live-action - is if it looks like live-action, smells like live-action, then for the audience, it's no different than that.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: For "The Jungle Book," Legato perfected a digital tool he first created for the Martin Scorsese movie "The Aviator," then fort James Cameron's epic film "Avatar." Legato calls it simulcam - a handheld camera that merges motion-captured live shots with computerized images.

LEGATO: I just call it virtual cinematography. Without getting too technical, wherever the camera moves, the computer version of that camera is moving exactly so it's in concert, in sync with it. And then that computer signal and our live blue screen shot are merged in real time. So we can see - as we tilt the camera up, we're seeing the canopy of trees, or we're seeing the monkeys chase or carry Mowgli.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: With experience on films such as "Avatar" and "Life Of Pi," the special effects team created realistic-looking animals. Legato says the animators visited zoos and were inspired by stock footage in the wild. They then refined the images in postproduction.

LEGATO: The eyes and the pulsing that you see in the skin and you see in their tail. When they breathe, even their tail moves - the little finesse, all that subtlety that makes you believe it. And there's one elephant shot that looks it was shot on National Geographic - beautiful footage, backlit, wonderful-looking stuff.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: "The Jungle Book" director and co-writer Jon Favreau says he wanted to honor Rudyard Kipling's original myths and also to add to the legacy of the original Disney cartoon. That meant using key images and music from the movie he watched as a child.

JON FAVREAU: First and foremost, I remembered "Bare Necessities." I remembered floating down the river, the bonding between Baloo and Mowgli. That was the strongest dynamic. I remember the snake wrapping up Mowgli and Mowgli being hypnotized.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUNGLE BOOK")

STERLING HOLLOWAY: (As Kaa, singing) Trust in me.

FAVREAU: I remember, of course, the monkeys living in the ruins of the temple. I remember them kidnapping Mowgli, taking him away and wanting to steal from him the secret of fire, the secret of man's red flower.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUNGLE BOOK")

LOUIS PRIMA: (As King Louie, singing) I want to be like you.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Favreau says it was a challenge to update the beloved G-rated musical for kids into a more realistic-looking PG adventure. But he says mixing up old stories with new tech was Walt Disney's secret. In that spirit, Favreau was eager to explore new filmmaking tools like simulcam.

FAVREAU: Which was, interestingly enough, very similar to what Walt Disney was doing when he was developing multiplane photography, where he implied depth and dimension through parallax, through sliding layers of perspective in his beautiful moving shots and films. Like, "Pinocchio" has a wonderful version of it. "Bambi" has one that we reference visually early in the film.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Favreau says Walt Disney was always a bit of a tech geek. For the animated film "Fantasia," he had engineers develop something called Fantasound, a predecessor of surround sound. Favreau revived Fantasound for movie theaters screening his movie. It's even listed in the credits. Favreau says he hopes the movie creates a new sense of wonder.

FAVREAU: The music and the sound effects and the performances and the animation and the visual effects - and to watch people's reactions as they try to figure out how we did what we did. There's the satisfaction that the magician has when they do a magic trick or a chef has when they present a meal that's just unbelievably conceived and executed.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Audiences may appreciate the new Disney craftsmanship and look forward to a sequel. Meanwhile, rival studio Warner Bros. is making its own version, "Jungle Book: Origins." Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.