Wow! I said it to myself over and over while watching Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book.” The story is familiar to anyone who knows the 1967 animated version, but the technology deployed to make this one is simply startling.
Favreau — who proved his dexterity with advanced visual effects with the first two “Iron Man” movies — has used a combination of live-action, computer graphics, and motion capture cinematography to create the most lifelike animation I’ve ever seen. Imagine the genius of Pixar plus the image density of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” and then ramp the combination up to a new level.
The result is remarkable. At no time do the animals look cartoonish. They and the boy, Mowgli (Neel Sethi), all live in the same dimensions and spaces — there’s no painted overlay effect. The jungle, the river, and the fire all look realistic. There’s a scene where the characters are outside in a rainstorm, and the way the drops of water on their fur hang there, drip off, or run in rivulets down their faces is identical to how it would look in real life.
Walking out after “The Jungle Book,” I wanted to know how Favreau pulled it off, so I found Carolyn Giordina’s piece in “The Hollywood Reporter”:
In order for Mowgli to share the screen with Baloo, Shere Khan and all the rest — including Scarlett Johansson’s snake Kaa, Ben Kingsley’s panther Bagheera, Lupita Nyong’o’s mother wolf Raksha and the late Garry Shandling’s porcupine Ikki — Favreau used the advanced “virtual production” techniques also employed by James Cameron on Avatar and Alfonso Cuaron on Gravity. The movie was shot on blue-screen stages at L.A. Center Studios, but the only live-action element in the movie is Mowgli and whatever small piece of set Sethi stood or climbed on. The rest is a rich photo-real CG jungle brought to life by the VFX and imaged by an art department led by production designer Christopher Glass. And, in the action sequences, the viewer is running or swinging alongside Mowgli thanks to cinematographer Bill Pope’s kinetic camera.
The technical processes involved were cutting edge, but the decision to make the movie in a virtual production environment was both a creative and practical one. Says Legato, “Photographing a kid in the jungle and on a limited scheduled is very difficult. A live-action shoot would be difficult, it wouldn’t look as good and It probably would be more expensive. With blue-screen, you are well on your way. Also you get to play a little, and if you miss a shot, you can easily go back. And the production design was definitely a part of the decision.”
As for the story, “The Jungle Book” is about Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves and other animals, all of whom can speak to him and each other. The antagonist is a menacing tiger (voiced by Idris Elba) whose previous run-in with humans taught him not to trust any of us, including this man-cub. Along the way, Mowgli meets Baloo The Bear (Bill Murray) and others. Two songs from the original movie are preserved — “Bare Necessities” and “I Want To Be Like You” — in updated versions. Murray’s take on the former is fine, but Christopher Walken’s interpretation of the latter can’t hold a candle to the standard set by Louis Prima five decades ago.
The other thing that occurred to me while watching “The Jungle Book” is how scary it must be for young kids. Parents who think they’re treating a child to another goofy Disney animated story will be quite surprised when their daughter or son jumps into their lap in fear, then has nightmares for a week because of a few very intense scenes in the movie. They’ll also need to be reminded that, in real life, it’s not such a good idea to get close to bears, panthers, snakes, and bees — let alone a vengeful tiger.
I give “The Jungle Book” 8.5 out of 10, mostly because of its dazzling visual effects.
Postscript: before “The Jungle Book,” we were shown trailers for three upcoming animated movies: “The Secret Life of Pets,” “Ice Age: Collision Course,” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows.” They all look awful and unfunny, but after “The Jungle Book,” they all looked outdated, too — left behind while animation technology takes a huge leap forward without them.