LOS ANGELES (AFP) – One of the best-loved animated films of all-time, “The Jungle Book” boasted iconic songs and a cast that ensured it would be revered as a milestone in Hollywood history.
But for all its virtues, Disney’s 1967 version of Rudyard Kipling’s tale of an orphan raised by wolves lacked the one thing you’d be sure to find in the jungle — the female of the species.
“I thought it was a little gender biased. I have two daughters, and the world is different now,” says Jon Favreau, who directs the big budget live-action remake which hits US theaters on April 15.
The veteran director set about putting things right by bringing on board Tinseltown A-lister and regular collaborator Scarlett Johansson to give villainous, and very male, snake Kaa the feminine touch.
“I liked the character of this mother figure who is welcoming and also menacing. I thought that there was something interesting psychologically about that,” Favreau told AFP.
The 49-year-old, who directed the “Iron Man” and “Avengers” movies, also hired Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o to upgrade the role of she-wolf Raksha, who has a bit-part in the 1967 film.
The 3D remake of the “The Jungle Book” employs photorealistic CGI in perhaps the most visually stunning yet of Disney’s growing stable of animation-to-live action remakes, which includes box office smashes “Maleficent,” “Cinderella” and “Alice in Wonderland.”
It stars American newcomer Neel Sethi, 12, as “Mowgli,” the man-cub forced to abandon his jungle home for a journey of self-discovery, guided by stern panther Bagheera and free-spirited bear Baloo.
Favreau plucked the youngster from around 2,000 children who auditioned to play Mowgli.
Sethi, whose scenes sprinting through the forest and swinging from vines required the athleticism of a gymnast, was studying for his black belt in Tae Kwon Do at the time.
“I’d never thought about acting before. I was in a dance class and the teacher heard about the role and said I’d be really good for it,” Sethi told AFP.
“So I auditioned. I went to LA and two weeks later we started filming.”
The young debutant and his female co-stars are joined by a glittering male cast featuring Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken, Idris Elba and Bill Murray, who is famously selective about the roles he takes.
“The hardest part of the movie was trying to get Bill Murray on the phone for the first time,” said Favreau, who cast the 65-year-old comic actor in the role of Baloo the bear.
“I sent letters, I sent artwork. I’d done it on other movies, I’d reached out to him before, and never heard from him. So when I got the call back from him, that’s when my whole world lit up.”
While “The Jungle Book” was the only animation for which Walt Disney hired well-known voice actors, Favreau describes himself as the kind of director who draws inspiration from an all-star cast.
“When I cast Robert Downey Jr, all of a sudden ‘Iron Man’ became very clear to me,” he told AFP.
“In this case, when Bill Murray came in as Baloo my blood pressure dropped. I knew that I had a great opportunity here to make a wonderful film.”
Dreaming of Mowgli
Born two months before Disney’s death in 1966, Favreau found fame early in his career as the writer and star of 1996 cult comedy “Swingers.”
His memories of the impresario’s last movie are sketchy, but he remembers dreaming of Mowgli driving in his parents’ Toyota in downtown Manhattan.
“I also remember it being scary to me. I remember the snake hypnotizing the boy felt very scary. I look at it now and it seems silly,” he told AFP.
Award-winning composer John Debney, whose father Louis was used by Walt Disney in the mid-1930s, provides a score reminiscent of the 1967 film but, unlike the original, the new version is not a musical.
There are snippets of the classic songs from the 1967 film, such as “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You,” but fans will have to wait for the closing credits for a full-on singalong.
Favreau said he reined in the musical numbers because he felt a more flamboyant approach would have undermined the sense of danger in his film, which is much more adult in tone than the original.
“You want to make a movie that’s appealing to all audiences, and around the world, and I think the original was more of a children’s movie,” he told AFP.
“Although people remember it fondly, if we had done a live action version of it, I think it would have felt a little redundant.”