The Jungle Book: Two visions, two creators, one story

We wonder if Rudyard Kipling ever imagined that his fantasy tale of a boy raised by wolves in the jungles of India would be told through various mediums. We wonder if Kipling as he was penning the story, ever thought that it would see the light of day on celluloid and be up for global consumption.

Jungle Book and Mowgli
Based on the famous Kipling story, The Jungle Book and Mowgli mixed real actors with computer-generated animals to tell this fantasy-adventure story. Having inspired movies like Elephant Boy (1937), Rikki-tikki-tavi (1975), The White Seal (1975), Mowgli Brother (1976), Zoltan Korda’s Jungle Book (1942), Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967), Adventures of Mowgli (1967 to 1971), the 96- minuter feature film (1973) and the Japanese anime Jungle Book Shonen Mowgli (1989), Kipling’ Jungle Book has its made its mark as an absolute classic that stood the test of time and regaled generations. Recent adaptations like Disney’s Jungle Book and Netflix’s Mowgli demonstrated how two seemingly analogous films can still vary in storytelling, tonality, CGI technology and the directorial approach. While Favreau’s version was stylised as a family entertainer that was deliberately diluted to dovetail well with Kids’ viewing standards, Serkis’ Mowgli was a much darker retelling of the story that featured a more raw, violent and adult undertones in its treatment. As it were, turns out that was not the only difference! Interestingly Andy Serkis’ Mowgli was in development before Disney’s The Jungle Book was even announced. But the Disney film was able to finish the production sooner.  We recently caught up with the senior creature animator Dhanu Muddikuppam who had co-incidentally worked for both the movies. While he served for a shorter amount of time for Serkis’ Mowgli, he played a prominent role in the making of Favreau’s The Jungle Book.
He shares, “Mainly I was there in Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book more than the Andy Serkis’ Mowgli. I was only involved in the beginning of the process for Mowgli.” Elaborating on the difference in the approach of depicting the animals as in the popular performance capture technology in Mowgli vis-a-vis the more naturalistic portrayal in The Jungle Book, he shares, “It depends on the silent choice of the director you know.. Jon Favreau emphasised upon realistic performance. He wanted it as natural as real animals so when you do that you try to actually cut down the whole thing, you don’t want to push too much stylisation because then it becomes a bit cartoonish. When it’s real, it almost like ‘less is more kind of deal’. In Jungle book, we were trying to avoid so many accents deliberately that if you notice they’re not actually mouthing each and every line. We have tried to put realistic behaviour of animals and just added lip-synch to it. We did not go down the route of getting them to mouth each and every dialogue which you can see in other Jungle book versions.” Highlighting the subtlety and importance of toning down and not completely replicating the facial expressions of the actors onto the animals, he reflects, “So if you see the Jungle Book they have even toned down the acting to even more minimum and not gone the documentary style like Lion King.” Enlightening us about the process of previsualization in the preproduction stage, he shared, “But for both of them, they gave us a lot of references and starting points as what they were aiming for. Before the movie, they conducted experiments and tests as in animating a few creatures; with acting or sometimes without acting.. Naturalistic, realistic performances as to how a lion would behave or a tiger would do act. We did that in the Jungle Book basically, finding the right balance like what works well. The amount of acting that would suit rather than pushing it too much on the face. So finding the right balance and we kind of followed the same style for the entire movie.”

While they were seemingly identical films made by different studios, within two years of each other, there was a world of a difference in the twin films. There are balladeers and detractors for both styles yet these movies showed how extraordinary classics can be brought to life using modern technology and artistry.