Favreau at Disneyland (Photo: Disney)
Jon Favreau is an unapologetic Disney devotee. He knows the old movies backwards and forwards. His Apple Watch face is, unsurprisingly, Mickey Mouse. His fandom helped earn him the gig of directing The Jungle Book and the eye-popping photo-real film is suffused with treats for both aficionados of Uncle Walt’s classic oeuvre and film buffs in general. From visual cues and callbacks to the original 1967 classic cartoon to obscure references, Favreau’s film will reward the observant.
“These are all little director games we play to keep ourselves occupied,” he said during a recent chat with Yahoo Movies. “I wanted to make sure the core group of fans of the underlying material were respected and rewarded. You want to make it fun for someone who has never seen the original film but for someone who loves the original film, we want them to understand that we love it, too.”
Here are the coolest things we spotted along with a little director’s commentary from Jon Favreau.
Sleeping Beauty’s castle is situated in the jungle
Favreau gets his fanboy on right away, kicking things off by setting the opening shot of Disney’s iconic castle in the jungle. But the geeking out goes deeper.
“We wanted the beginning of the movie to be low-tech and feel of the moment in the history of Disney [of the 1967 original film],” he says. “Disney lets you change the logo, so we designed a logo that’s actually cel-painted, hand-painted. And [film composer] John Debney reorchestrated the opening Disney theme over the logo using the orchestration that they would have used then, with harp and chimes, a much smaller orchestra, a very different orchestra from what’s being used now.
Disney logo in ‘The Jungle Book’ (Image: Disney)
“So we go from a cel-painted castle, with hand-painted fireworks and flames on the torches. And we pull back into something that eventually becomes photo-real, a shot that’s similar to the shot in Bambi.”
Dozens of key scenes throughout the new Jungle Book purposely echo the 1967 film, among them:
Mowgli (Neel Sethi) howling with his fellow cubs in the wolf pack…
Mowgli and Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) strolling by a waterfall…
Mowgli lost in the jungle…
Mowgli transfixed by Kaa the python (Scarlett Johansson)…
And Mowgli and Baloo the sloth bear (Bill Murray) floating down the river while humming “The Bare Necessities.”
“To me the iconic image [from the original] is Mowgli floating on the belly of the bear,” says Favreau. “And that was a challenge because the physics of it is not easy to do realistically. So we studied a lot of polar bears to get the proper reference. To me it was like, ‘We got to have it.’ These were iconic characters to me and iconic moments. And it was vitally important to me to honor the images that stand out the most, but not do a carbon-copy of the original.”
But there are other Disney influences
Aside from the Bambi nod at the beginning, Favreau included homages to some of his other favorite Disney films. There’s a scene with the elephants based on Dumbo. And the scene where King Louie encounters Mowgli in the temple is inspired by Pinocchio, where the puppet gets pursued by the giant whale, Monstro.
Monstro the whale in ‘Pinocchio’ (Image: Disney)
The seminal songs are there, with some minor alterations
Favreau knew The Jungle Book couldn’t be a full-on musical, but he wanted to find a way to include the all-time best known songs from the original. So Baloo and Mowgli still sing a few bars of “The Bare Necessities” and Christopher Walken does “I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song).”
Listen to Bill Murray and Kermit Ruffins perform ‘The Bare Necessities’:
But careful listeners might notice that the lyrics for the latter tune, written by the legendary Disney songwriting team of Richard Sherman and his late brother, Robert, have been changed.
And that prompts a priceless anecdote from Favreau:
“When I was describing to [Richard Sherman] that we would need new lyrics because we re-conceived [the King Louie] set piece, I said, ‘It’s not an orangutan anymore, it’s a Gigantopithecus.’ And as soon as I said that word, he said, ‘Stop right there. Say that again. Gigantopithecus? Get me a pen!’ It was like something out of an old movie. Remember, he wrote ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialodocious’ [‘Really, he did? I did not know that,’ says an incredulous Sethi].
“I say, ‘You think you can rhyme that?’ And he says, ‘I think I can.’ And he rhymes it twice in one lyric! [’You might think it’s ridiculous, that me, a Gigantopithecus, would ever dream I’d like to team with the likes of you, man-cub… Oh how magnificus it would be, a Gigantopithecus like me could learn to do like you human do-oo-oo…’].”
Listen to Christopher Walken perform ‘I Wan’na Be Like You’:
While Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa doesn’t sing in the film itself (she does hiss, “Trust in me” at one point), her rendition of “Trust in Me” plays during the end credits, along with a full version of Walken’s “I Wan’na Be Like You,” and Dr. John’s take on “The Bare Necessities.” (To celebrate New Orleans jazzman Louis Prima, who played King Louie in the first Jungle Book, Favreau took Walken and Murray to the Big Easy to record their numbers with Dr. John and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins.)
Listen to Scarlett Johansson perform ‘Trust in Me’:
Although the elephants and vultures don’t get their own numbers as in the ’67 version, the pachyderms still play a major role in the new film. There’s even a nod to the vultures — easily the one part of the original Disney film that has aged the worst, with its incongruous Beatles impersonators/barbershop quartet — with a couple quick shots of the birds scattered throughout.
Speaking of the music…
The credits note the film was recorded in Fantasound, a sound process Walt Disney’s team specifically developed with RCA for Fantasia but abandoned shortly thereafter because exhibitors didn’t want to invest in the technology. “Walt had a vision to put the audience in the middle of the music… “I said, Wouldn’t it be cool to explore what Fantasound would be now?” explains Favreau. His sound engineers realized that the surround sound used by Dolby Atmos was similar. So if you see Jungle Book in an Atmos-powered cinema, “You will feel there are instruments moving around the theater.”
Vintage Fantasound ad (via AnimationProclamations/Tumblr)
This isn’t the first time Favreau directed Giancarlo Esposito in The Jungle Book
Favreau happened to cast the honey-piped veteran actor for a commercial for the video game Destiny. In the spot, Esposito reads “The Law of the Jungle,” a poem from Kipling’s stories recited by Akela to the wolves.
Watch Esposito read ‘The Law of the Jungle’ in Favreau’s ‘Destiny’ commercial:
During the commercial shoot, Esposito and Favreau got to talking about their mutual affinity for Kipling’s stories. Esposito recounts their conversation: “Jon said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to do this again?’ And then a year later I get a phone call, and he says, ‘Will you be a part of this?’” And that’s how Esposito wound up playing Akela in the film.
Rocky the Rhino gets his moment
One of the notable characters developed for the 1967 film but never used was Rocky the Rhino. His design had been approved and artists had storyboarded the climactic scene with him in it.
‘Jungle Book’ character sketches, including Rocky (Image: Disney)
Ultimately the filmmakers decided that having four vultures and a rhino was just too much and poor Rocky hit the cutting-room floor. But Favreau has restored the character for the film, giving him a bit of screen time and the voice of comedian Russell Peters.
Watch the originally conceived scene from ‘The Jungle Book’ DVD:
Garry Shandling’s bittersweet finale
The porcupine Ikki (a character in the Kipling stories but not in the Disney cartoon) is voiced by Garry Shandling in what turned out to be the comedian’s final role. Favreau was a big fan, and friend, having lured Shandling out of an acting hiatus for a role in Iron Man 2. If you stay through the credits, you’ll see that Favreau dedicated the film to Shandling’s memory.
That’s the same Jungle Book book.
A trope of Disney movies, including The Jungle Book, was using a real storybook at the beginning that would open up into the animation. That inspired Favreau:
“I noticed that The Jungle Book starts with a real book on blue velvet opening up and there’s a drawing. And you push into the drawing and it becomes a cartoon. But the book never closes. So my fantasy was to close that book. So I talked to Disney and they said, ‘Well, it might be in the archives.’ I say, ‘Please see if you have the book.’ They dug it up. They found the leather-bound book from the movie.
“But they said, ‘You can’t touch it.’ Somebody showed up with a white glove. Nobody could handle it. We set up to match the table exactly. So the end of the movie we freeze on the frame. It goes to a drawing.”
There was one catch: Favreau wanted the book to bounce along with Walken’s rendition of “I Wan’na Be Like You” and then open up.
“So there was the archivist with a broom handle under the table bouncing the book up and down,” the director says. “Then once it opens it goes back to digital and the pages flip with little vignettes from the movie. It’s super-cool.”
Sound off in the comments if there are any super-cool references you spotted.