How The Jungle Book combines technology and emotion to great effect

28 Apr 2016 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

9 mins
The Jungle Book (2016)
The Jungle Book (2016)

Attempting a new version of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book is risky. The 1967 animated film - with its gloriously upbeat soundtrack and wonderful characters - remains beloved by audiences of all ages. Fans are fiercely protective of its legacy; simply remaking the same film would have seemed cynical and pointless. But, differ too much and you risk betraying the roots of the story. As well as this, with increasingly visually sophisticated audiences, anything less than a totally immersive experience would be dismissed as artificial. And as if that wasn't challenging enough, the animals need to not only look real, but be infused with enough humanity to make viewers connect with them. Tough job.

However the filmmakers felt that the story was rich enough - and the technology sufficiently advanced - to justify a new version. Part of a long line of live-action remakes of classic animations (other examples include Alice In WonderlandMaleficentCinderella and 2017's upcoming Beauty & The Beast), many argue that revisiting old stories again and again shows a lack of imagination, but others point out that cinema has always gone back to revisit the same stories when the advancement of new technologies allows for a refreshing new take.

Director Jon Favreau (ElfIron Man) has also returned to some of the darker themes of Kipling's original stories, which - based on the author's own memories of growing up in India - have enthralled audiences around the world ever since they were first published in 1895. For readers of the time, Kipling provided their first introduction to the then relatively mysterious country of India, as well as its extraordinary range of wildlife. Favreau wanted to draw more on the mythic qualities of Kipling's storytelling and its heightened sense of adventure, but without losing any of the joy and charm of the animated film, including retaining some of its most beloved songs and characters.

The filmmakers also looked to other classic Disney films - in particular BambiThe Lion King and Pinocchio - to learn from how they created their environments, characters and other elements, bringing them all together to form part of the story. Older viewers might also recognise nods to classic Vietnam film Apocalypse Now through the new incarnation of King Louie, played by Christopher Walken, whose presence is reflective of a wry, laid-back voice cast, featuring Idris Elba, Bill Murray and Ben Kingsley. Favreau was also influenced by the book Hero of a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, whose theories about mythology and heroism have influenced many film sagas, most notably Star Wars and Harry Potter. Audiences may be able to spot parallels between some of the characters seen in The Jungle Book and these other films.

Other elements of Disney and Kipling's jungles, however, have been altered. Feeling that the previous versions of the story did not feature enough female characters, the snake Kaa is now played by Scarlett Johansson, and there is an increased role for Lupita Nyong'o's Raksha, a member of the wolf tribe and the closest thing Mowgli has to a mother.

However, the first thing audiences will really notice about the 2016 version is the astonishing technology. Using groundbreaking visual effects techniques - many of them led by UK-based company MPC - the aim of the filmmakers is to make the viewer feel for the first time that they are actually in the jungle with Mowgli, Baloo and the rest of the gang. 

Instead of shooting live-action, before cut-and-pasting animation on top, the filmmakers built the entire jungle within a computer, using footage from real Indian jungles for reference. Mowgli was filmed alone on a small Los Angeles soundstage and the world was then constructed around him, using similar techniques to those seen in recent science-fiction films like Gravity, only applied to something earthbound. Once the jungle had been constructed, its animals needed to be turned into characters. Rather than applying motion-capture (in the same way as films like Avatar and The Polar Express), they instead used the more complicated process of key-frame animation - again, using real animals for reference - to capture photo-realistic images of the creatures, but with the visual characteristics to express the emotions and vocal performances of the actors.

The animals are not entirely realistic though. Wanting his film to reflect a childlike view of the world, many of the creatures and plants are slightly larger than their real-life counterparts, adding to the feeling that the audience is experiencing the jungle in the same way as Mowgli - as a small boy in a big world. This heightens the film's drama. Not only does everything look slightly more wonderful on a larger scale, but the jungle becomes that much more frightening and perilous for Mowgli. Achieving all of this required a crew of over 800 artists pulling together to bring more than 70 species of animal to life. It also takes a huge amount of time - because of his size and furry nature, it took artists almost five hours to create each frame of film featuring Baloo.

But as impressive as the technology is, the film would be a failure if that were all the audience responded to. For the film to truly work, the focus has to always be on story and character - an ethos that has been applied at Pixar and which accounts for so much of their success. To engage audiences, films have to work on an emotional level, allowing for character development, humour and a real sense of jeopardy. Compared to the animated version, Mowgli's adventures are rather more dangerous here, with elements of Kipling's original stories emphasising that the jungle is not a place for a child to be. 

But technology and emotion are not entirely separate. These elements combine to help the audience identify with and care for the animal characters. Like any community, the jungle contains danger, but also individuals that can teach Mowgli universal lessons about who he is and the world around him. From Baloo, Mowgli is given the freedom to express and develop his talents; whereas Bagheera the jaguar helps him to understand the importance of community, discipline and working together. 

The combination of all of these - freedom, creative expression, discipline, working together - are also features of making any film, particularly those on the scale of The Jungle Book. The level of technical advancement allows for the same kind of evolutionary leap that hand-drawn animation took in 1937 for Snow White, ushering a whole new experience for audiences, both visually and emotionally. Technology and storytelling often work together to give ensure a film provides a broader, more engaging experience for audiences, whether young or old.

We cannot guarantee that all films discussed in this article are covered by the PVSL and are part of our catalogue, but where possible we aim to ensure that this is the case.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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