Jungle Book:

WHO’S IN THE JUNGLE

Filmmakers Recreate Traditional Characters with a Twist

Given a roster of memorable characters that won the hearts of many nearly five decades ago, filmmakers wanted to maintain the magic of the familiar faces, while adding a unique spin that promises to win new fans. They called on a charismatic newcomer to play Mowgli, and utilized cutting-edge technology and an all-star voice cast to bring to life his animal counterparts.

According to producer Brigham Taylor, the voice cast—which is like a who’s who of Hollywood—was the dream cast. “I’m happy to be able to say that our cast were all the very first choices that [director] Jon [Favreau] had in mind, which speaks to the pedigree of the project and Jon’s status among the actor community as a director.”

“Like a chef needs to use the proper ingredients to prepare the perfect meal, a filmmaker needs the right cast,” says Favreau. “As with all of my films, it always starts with the cast. I have to have a great cast and the right mix of actors, otherwise, I can’t do my job properly—especially when you’re making a new version of a film that’s already so loved.”

The characters were brought to life through a combination of voice acting and performances delivered via CG animation. Sometimes, it’s difficult to separate the two. Says Taylor, “The renderings of some of the characters evolved once the voice actors were cast, sometimes subtly, sometimes a bit more substantially. In all cases, we wanted the animals to look like their counterparts in nature. We want a bear to look like a real bear and a panther to look like a real panther but there were certain subtle, almost imperceptible tweaks to embody the expressions to fit the vocal performances. The animation artists made very clever tweaks that are subtle enough that you still believe in the animal.”

CHARACTER LINEUP

Mowgli is a human boy who was abandoned in the jungle as an infant. A black panther named Bagheera discovers the lone baby and takes him to a wolf pack, who adopts the boy as one of their own. Known in the jungle as the man-cub, Mowgli grows up among the animals—some friends, some foes—never doubting for a moment that he belongs.

“Mowgli is a character who wants to fit in,” says Favreau. “He feels alienated. He’s an outsider. A vulnerable little kid, like the ugly duckling in a pack of wolves. Each year the wolf cubs grow and mature faster than him and eventually they get to join the wolf council. He’s left behind like that kid in school who gets left behind every year. Although he’s a plucky, rambunctious kid with a lot of confidence, his life isn’t easy.”

Mowgli finds himself lost and confused when he’s asked to leave the only home he’s ever known. But he’s not completely alone. In fact, he’s guided by two father figures who contribute opposing views. “Mowgli’s a very loving, accepting character,” says Taylor. “He accepts Baloo and Bagheera as they are but ultimately he has to synthesize what he’s learned from both. Baloo is the character that gives Mowgli the freedom to be who he is and express the talents that he has. Bagheera understands the importance of community, social structure, discipline and working together. By the end of the story, Mowgli is able to borrow a bit from both and he makes it work for him in a way that neither one of them necessarily could see from the beginning.”

Filmmakers cast newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli. As the only human character to appear on screen, Sethi was called on to not only portray the beloved Mowgli—but to summon incredible imagination skills in order to visualize the other elements in each scene. “Finding the right kid to play Mowgli was imperative,” says Favreau. “We did an exhaustive worldwide search of 2,000 kids before we found Neel. He was one of the last people that I looked at, and right away, I felt that he had the same emotional and physical qualities that Mowgli had in the ’67 animated version. His look was uncanny in how much he evoked what we wanted. He inherently had a good sense of fun and humor.”

According to casting director Sarah Finn, Sethi won the role with his personality. “Neel embodies the heart, humor, and daring of the character,” says Finn. “He’s warm and accessible, yet also has an intelligence well beyond his years and impressed us all with his ability to hold his own in any situation. His natural charisma and instincts jumped out at us.”

Adds Taylor, “It was an ecstatic moment in casting that I’ve never experienced before. Neel is one of the fastest learners I’ve ever seen and Jon [Favreau] is perhaps the best acting coach ever.”

The director’s coaching skills came in handy since Sethi had never acted professionally. “Everything in this movie is geared toward the performance of this one kid,” says Favreau. “I’ve worked with enough kids to be confident in my own taste and my ability to get the performance. He was just so real. He felt right. We knew we found our Mowgli.”

Sethi’s wardrobe, though limited, was given a lot of thought. “Our task was to create a loincloth that was both realistic and acceptable,” says costume designer Laura Jean Shannon. “We wanted something organic that would not draw the audience away from the story and the performances. We really wanted Mowgli to evoke the feel of the animated feature of our youth, so we made the loincloth red.”

Shannon even developed a backstory for the garment, imagining that as an infant, Mowgli would’ve been dressed in a traditional Indian dhoti that over time had faded and frayed.

Bagheera is a sleek and stunning panther who rescued Mowgli when he was abandoned in the jungle as an infant. The effort bonded the big cat to the man-cub—indeed, Bagheera has a bit of a soft spot for the boy. As Mowgli’s mentor, Bagheera guides him to faithfully follow the laws of the jungle. And when it comes time for Mowgli to leave his jungle home, Bagheera feels it’s his duty to help the man-cub depart with dignity.

Academy Award® winner Ben Kingsley brings his noble voice to Bagheera. “He just brought this elegance and refinement to the character, yet with great firmness,” says Favreau. “He’s an interesting dude with crazy range.”

Says Kingsley, “Bagheera is Mowgli’s adoptive parent. His role in Mowgli’s life is to educate, to protect and to guide.

“As an actor,” continues Kingsley, “I have to find my hook into the character. I decided that the role lent itself to the rhythm of the writing if my Bagheera was military—he’s probably a colonel. He is instantly recognizable by the way he talks, how he acts and what his ethical code is.”

The actor considered the character’s physicality when recording. “When Bagheera is looking back at the story of Mowgli when he was his tutor, I liked to be seated in the recording studio—reclined, very relaxed. I’m telling a story. But when the character is leading him across the jungle, actively protecting Mowgli, I use a much more physical approach toward the microphone. It’s quite a disciplined craft.”

Kingsley grew up with the source material. “Rudyard Kipling’s stories of Mowgli’s adventures with these extraordinary, beautifully defined characters introduce many around the world to the Indian subcontinent and its culture,” he says.

The actor was also a fan of the animated film based on Kipling’s stories. “I loved the 1967 Disney version,” he says. “I loved the characters, the music.”

At its core, says Kingsley, “The Jungle Book” is about one’s search for family. “There are many wonderful stories that are based on the struggle of an orphan to find a family—to create a family around him, which is a very poignant part of Jon Favreau’s version of the film. It will have its beautiful, thrilling, exciting, joyous moments of celebration. But must also quite rightly have its darker moments, because we’re dealing with a very isolated child who triumphs over enormous odds.”

Raksha, a loving and fiercely protective mother wolf, cares deeply for all of her pups—including man-cub Mowgli, whom she adopts as one of her own when he’s abandoned in the jungle as an infant.

“We relied a little more on Kipling when it came to Raksha,” says Favreau. “The wolves have a much greater significance in his stories, which was important to me.”

Oscar® winner Lupita Nyong’o was called on to help bring Raksha to life. “I just love my character,” says Nyong’o. “She is the protector, the eternal mother. The word Raksha actually means protection in Hindi. I felt really connected to that, wanting to protect a son that isn’t originally hers but one she’s taken for her own.

“I really enjoyed preparing for this and learning about wolves and how social they are, how they stick together,” continues Nyong’o. “There’s such an order—a hierarchy—to a wolf pack. Mowgli tries to fit in with the other wolf pups. He has his challenges, but he is very much a part of the pack as far as Raksha is concerned.”

Taylor credits the actress with channeling her inner wolf. “Lupita just nailed the emotion of this character, which wasn’t really fleshed out in the animated version,” he says. “She intuitively captured that bond between an adoptive mother and her son.”

Adds Favreau, “She’s elegant and refined, but it’s more than that. She has an accessibility about her that was what we really wanted for Raksha. She feels like a mom, but she clearly comes from somewhere different than where Mowgli does.”

Nyong’o says she was familiar with the story when filmmakers approached her. “I grew up watching the Disney version and loved it so much,” she says. “As a little girl, my favorite character was Baloo. The magic of Mowgli’s story is that every child can identify with that feeling that you are the only one of your kind. I really identified with that idea. And going on an adventure with no adults is the ultimate childhood fantasy. I loved that this kid got to realize himself through this amazing adventure. It’s a wonderful coming-of-age story.”

Akela is the strong and hardened alpha-male wolf who shoulders the responsibility of the pack. He maintains order, enforces the law of the jungle and serves as a confident chief. He has mixed feelings about Mowgli. Though he’s welcomed the man-cub into the pack, Akela harbors a fear that Mowgli will grow up like the unkind humans he’s experienced in the past and compromise the safety of the rest of the family.

“Akela is a fierce patriarch of the wolf pack,” says Giancarlo Esposito, who voices the character. “He believes that the strength of the pack lies in what each and every wolf offers. He knows if they stick together, they can survive. He’s a great leader, a wise teacher. I aspire to be like him.”

According to Taylor, Esposito has already achieved that goal. “Giancarlo is an esteemed actor who absolutely embodies the nature of the character,” he says.

Esposito is a longtime fan of “The Jungle Book.” “I saw the classic animated version as a kid when it opened in theaters in 1967,” he says. “I enjoyed it so much that it inspired me to read Rudyard Kipling’s version. I discovered that Kipling wrote such amazing stories that took place in an exotic land.”

Bengal tiger Shere Khan bears the scars of Man, which fuel his intense hatred of humans. Powerful and menacing, the fearsome tiger makes no secret of his feelings about man-cub Mowgli and his presence in the jungle. Shere Khan’s mission, above all else, is to ensure Mowgli—and the fire he knows Man wields—pose no future threat. Deep down, Shere Khan seeks revenge upon Man, and it’s Mowgli who will pay the price.

Golden Globe®-winning actor Idris Elba was tapped to bring the tiger to life. “Jon [Favreau] and I sculpted what the sound should be,” says Elba. “It was a delicate set of negotiations till we found the right voice.”

“Idris wields tremendous presence in a room, which is evident in his voice,” says Favreau. “He’s got such gravity and brings his steely presence, a deep timbre that echoes in a larger-than-life way. He understands this scarred, imposing tiger in a way the character demands.”

“Shere Khan reigns with fear,” says Elba. “He terrorizes everyone he encounters because he comes from a place of fear.

Elba was shocked when he saw the character come to fruition. “When Jon [Favreau] showed me Shere Khan’s expressions and how he moves, I had to ask, ‘Is that a real tiger?’ The technology is incredible.”

Kaa sets her sights on Mowgli when she discovers him all alone in the jungle. The massive python uses her seductive voice and hypnotic gaze to entrance the man-cub, and Mowgli finds himself unable to resist her captivating embrace.

Says Favreau, “Mowgli is exploring different regions of the jungle—mistier, darker, more mysterious parts of the jungle. That’s where Kaa lives. That’s where she gets ahold of him—till Baloo rescues him and brings him back to his cave.”

The director says one of his most prominent memories of the 1967 animated movie was the snake. “I always remembered Kaa’s hypnotic eyes with the spinning pinwheels,” he says.

Though Favreau wanted to maintain the spirit of the character, he decided to change its gender. “All the roles were male in the 1967 version, so I thought that there was an opportunity with Kaa to mix things up a little bit,” says Favreau, who called on Golden Globe® nominee Scarlett Johansson to help bring the seductive snake to life.

“The Jungle Book” marks Johansson’s third collaboration with Favreau. She originated the role of Black Widow in “Iron Man 2,” and co-starred in Favreau’s indie hit “Chef.” “I remember seeing the movie ‘Her,’ and what an impact Scarlett made by just using her voice,” says the director. “She has such a presence to her voice.”

Says Johansson, “Ever since I was really young, I’ve loved doing voice work. Actors have different tools—our physical selves, our voices. When you take one of those away you become hyperaware of all kinds of tendencies. It’s an interesting process and sometimes you get these happy accidents and ornaments that decorate the performance. It’s an exciting way to work and dig deeper.

“For me,” continues Johansson, “the opportunity to play Kaa as envisioned by Jon [Favreau] was so exciting. The snake from the animated film is a boy. He’s a friendlier, goofier version of the character. In this film, Kaa seduces and entraps Mowgli with her storytelling—her voice. She’s the mirror into Mowgli’s past. It was thrilling to reinvent this character in this rendering of the story.”

The character is designed to be intimidating, yet believable. “I saw a bit of Kaa early on during the production,” says Johansson. “It was important for me to see how she looks in proportion to Mowgli to help inform the presence and intensity of my voice. I had one tool—my voice—so it would’ve been very difficult without some sort of pre-visual reference.

“Kaa is magnificent,” continues Johansson. “The way that she moves is very alluring, almost coquettish. The audience will see this creature through the innocent eyes of this small boy Mowgli—they’ll become part of his world.”

Johansson has vivid memories of the 1967 version of “The Jungle Book.” “I remember that soundtrack well—it was so popular when I was a kid. ‘Bare Necessities’ was on constant repeat for every kid my age. And the idea of this jungle kid being raised by animals was just fantastic.

“I think little kids can relate to the theme of finding your family—of discovering what it means to be a family,” continues the actress. “The definition of family is such a personal one and families come in all shapes and sizes. But ultimately, family is made up of the people around you who love you unconditionally.”

Baloo is a free-spirited bear who meets Mowgli after the man-cub has been banished from the jungle. His bohemian style rubs off on the man-cub, propelling his introspection. “Baloo is a huge bear, bigger than life,” says Favreau. “He’s that teacher that you have in high school that encourages you to read the books that maybe you weren’t allowed to read, and opens your eyes to what the world is really all about. He’s a subversive thinker. He is not a guy who exactly fits into jungle society. He plays by his own rules and he encourages Mowgli to do the same.”

According to the director, Baloo is more complex than meets the eye. “The trick with Baloo is to capture that avuncular nature that he had in the 1967 film. He was lazy, he liked to eat. But he wasn’t a big, cuddly bear. He growled and roared. He knew how to fight and he knew how to protect himself. And still he bonds with this kid—he grows to care about him. Bill Murray was able to preserve those qualities while still bringing his iconic voice to the role.”

Favreau wanted the Oscar®-nominated actor to voice Baloo from the project’s inception. “He’s perfect,” says the director. “Bill just exudes all the charm and humor that you need and expect from Baloo. He has a certain dryness and a rebellious quality.

“I have always wanted to work with Bill Murray,” continues Favreau. “I’m a huge fan. But he’s not the easiest guy to get ahold of. Getting Bill Murray to agree to do your movie is like catching a unicorn. You have to stalk him.”

Fortunately for Favreau, the director caught his unicorn. “It turns out, Bill loves the character,” he says. “Once he came aboard, he was incredibly passionate. He has a very high standard.”

“I just couldn’t say no to playing Baloo,” says Murray. “Jon [Favreau] is a terrific storyteller and I’m such a huge fan of the original stories. Kipling wrote a lot of amazing stuff. I read that book when I was about 22 and I’ve always thought that it was just extraordinary writing.”

King Louie rules over the Bandar-log, a colony of wild and wily monkeys. His stature and prowess make him a formidable force, but he has one great desire: he desperately wants to behold the secret of Man’s deadly “red flower”—fire. The massive ape is convinced that Mowgli, who’s a man-cub after all, possesses the information he seeks, and King Louie slyly employs his smooth-talking ways in an attempt to coerce Mowgli to give it up.

“Anyone who controls the red flower can control the jungle,” says Favreau. “It’s a magical destructive force.”

If Mowgli can’t give King Louie what he wants, says the director, the ape is likely to reveal his true colors.

Oscar-winning actor Christopher Walken lends his iconic voice to King Louie. “It was fun to have Chris Walken play the heavy,” says Favreau. “He’s charming and endearing, but there’s this unpredictability to him.”

Filmmakers rethought the look—and species—of King Louie. “There are no orangutans in this part of the jungle, so we had to make a leap from the animated film,” says Favreau.” According to Indian legend, a Gigantopithecus is like a jungle version of a yeti—an elusive character. We exaggerated his height and size even more—he’s a fantasy character, so we pushed it.”

Especially helpful in the technological efforts behind King Louie’s on-screen look, was reference footage. “We found that with a character like King Louie, who’s a primate, we could get a lot of information from a human set of expressions,” says Favreau. “There’s nothing a human does with its face that could be translated to a snake’s anatomy or a bear—but King Louie benefited.”

According to WETA’s Dan Lemmon, King Louie was inspired in part by the actor who voices him. “We used some facial details from Christopher Walken,” says Lemmon. “We studied his performances while recording, as well as other films like ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘True Romance.’

“He has certain peculiarities,” continues Lemmon. “He’ll lick his lips occasionally when he’s talking and there’s something specific about his lower lip. King Louie is definitely a fun character.”

 

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