Last night, I saw the new version of Disney’s The Jungle Book. This movie is touted as a live-action version of the 1967 classic. But…..it’s not? There’s only one live action aspect to this film. Neel Sethi, the boy who plays Mowgli in his acting debut, is the only member of the cast to even have step foot on a soundstage. Every other aspect of the film is entirely digitally created. Some are based off of foam dummies and place holders, but none are rotoscoped (animated over actual film), like the film Avatar. All of the characters, environments, and pretty much everything you see in the film are entirely created by animators.
Of the set, director Jon Favreau said to Yahoo
“Now on the set, you would just see foam objects and things to climb over beams to balance on — all painted blue — but there was a digital environment that lined up exactly to that. And of course it was all much higher off the ground in the digital world. So it just looked like you were running around in a tumbling studio or on a jungle gym. And when you saw it in the Simulcam monitor, he’d be 100 feet off the ground precariously leaping from branch to branch.”
In fact, there was a rough cut of this film put together before a single shot was ever taken. Like a traditional animated film, all of the dialogue was recorded before anything was shot. A motion capture was then put together, and from there whatever sets needed to be built, were.
When I saw this film at USC, John Debney, the composer of the film, did a talk-back after the screening. He revealed a couple of fun tidbits (such as old-timer Richard Sherman, writer of “It’s a Small World” and the Mary Poppins soundtrack , wrote a new verse of “I Wanna Be Like You” for the 2016 reboot). He also shared a little about Favreau’s directing style. He said that above all else, if Walt Disney were to walk on set, he would have wanted him to be proud.
This was mentioned in reference to re-recording the logo music so it had the “Disney” sound, yet it caused me pause in a much larger sense. Since the film is basically entirely animated, Debney had very little visual understanding of what was happening in each scene, so Favreau would spend “at least ten minutes” physically acting out a scene.
This is something Disney himself did. On production for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Disney was disappointed with the animators physical manifestations of each character’s mannerisms. So he acted out the entire film for them.
It’s interesting that the Jungle Book seems to be the Disney film that’s gaining the most traction, with a director who has been quoted wanting to make Disney proud and using his tactics to do so. Disney has released a handful of live action remakes of old animated classics, none which seemed to be such a big deal as this one, none which received a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, and none which are essentially animated films themselves. The new Jungle Book trades out cel animation for CGI. The Jungle Book (1967) was one of the first films to use Xerography (this word looks familiar because it’s the root word for Xerox, and the genesis of laser printing). Outlines of characters were essentially Xeroxed onto cels (sheets of celluloid), which were then hand painted by animators. Animators were responsible for entire sequences of animation, as opposed to single characters as is the standard now.
The Jungle Book (1967) was the last film Disney himself produced before his death. It is Disney’s last film that is being used to usher in a new type of animated film in 2016.
Walt Disney Studios goes through waves of relevance, the first and most revolutionary ending with The Jungle Book (1967). After this film, Disney had trouble drawing a crowd and emotional attachment until the Disney renaissance (and rise of animator, Glen Keane), starting with the Little Mermaid. The current Disney period is often referred to as “Post-Renaissance” and includes films like Tangled, Frozen, and Wreck-It Ralph. But now, it could be argued, Disney is ushering in a new era of importance. Starting with The Jungle Book (2016). This film uses computer animation is a way that is being touted as “photorealistic.” It creates a thrilling action film using almost entirely animation. (And it even keeps some of the musical numbers from the original film, bless.) Animation is used here just like it always is, to create a rich world where impossible things can happen, such as a tiger throwing a wolf off a cliff (sorry spoilers, but this was literally crazy), or turning Christopher Walken into a giant ancient species of monkey (best part of the movie, by far). This isn’t a live action film. Yet, no one seems to be calling it an animated film, either. Perhaps Computer Graphic technology has reached a pivotal point where it is creating its own genre in Photorealism. This could continue to blur the line that segregates animation from adult content. This could continue to blur the line even between the real world and the digital world. In an increasingly digital reality, suddenly we classify an almost fully animated film as live action. This film an its general reception have huge implications for the industry moving forward. The Jungle Book (2016) is not only a feat in modern special effects, but is also a rebirth of the genre Disney himself created, the animated feature film.