Unlocking The Fairy Tale Code
The Jungle Book is but the latest fairy tale/fantasy story that Walt Disney Pictures has turned into a live-action/CGI tentpole, drawing inspiration largely from the studio’s own previous animated film adaptation of the source material (in this case, Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 novel of the same name). The movie represents the continuation of a Disney trend that kicked off in 2010, when director Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland – inspired as much by the Mouse House’s 1951 animated film as Lewis Caroll’s original book – grossed more than $1 billion worldwide in theaters.
Disney has an Alice sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, slated to hit theaters this year in May, followed by the remake of the studio’s 1977 film Pete’s Dragon – which, unlike its peers, was a live-action/animation musical hybrid – and then the live-action musical Beauty and the Beast in 2017, again with the latter drawing more from Disney’s 1991 animated movie than the much-older fairy tale that preceded it. The studio has also claimed release dates for four as-yet unannounced live-action fairy tale movies for 2017-2019, with potential candidates including a Dumbo re-imagining directed by Burton, a sequel the the Sleeping Beauty re-telling Maleficent, and a Cruella de Vil origin story film starring Emma Stone (titled simply Cruella) – among many other films reported to be in development right now.
It’s safe to assume Disney isn’t going to stop re-fashioning and re-packaging beloved entries in its 20th Century animated filmography as live-action fairy tale features for 21st Century audiences anytime soon, seeing as Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, and the live-action Cinderella (2015) each grossed more than half a billion dollars in theaters worldwide alone (to say nothing of their tie-in merchandise and/or home viewing sales) – and Disney is already confident enough in The Jungle Book‘s box office prospects to have started development on a sequel. Thus far, however, director Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book has by far earned the most enthusiastic critical reception and the best reviews out of the Mouse House’s live-action fairy tale movies released going back to Burton’s Alice on Wonderland (with a current Rotten Tomatoes score of 95% Fresh).
This begs the question: how does Jungle Book ‘crack the code’ for Disney live-action fairy tales re-tellings in a way that the movies before it – even the well-received Cinderella – arguably didn’t quite manage to do? Let’s break it down.
The Bare Necessities of Filmmaking
The combined reception from critics and the general moviegoing public to Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent (movies with Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 52% and 50%, respectively) could fairly be summarized as mixed-to-positive overall. However, one element of those films that has received near-universal praise is the visual effects and production design – though, not without qualifiers in that case, either.
The Tim Burton-directed vision of Wonderland (or Underland, as it’s known in the movie) is quite gorgeous to simply look at, yet the movie doesn’t exactly break new ground with its use of CGI and 3D to create an immersive fantasy setting – not least of all, when it arrived but a few months after Avatar was released in theaters – and it tends to lean too heavily on the visual tropes that have long characterized Burton’s movies (darkly whimsical touches, vertical stripes, extremely pale-faced humans, and so forth). Maleficent falls in a similar boat, arguably. Director Robert Stromberg (who won a pair of Oscars for his art direction on Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, as it were) brings the world of Disney’s 1959 animated Sleeping Beauty to life as a shiny and shimmering collection of fantasy creatures and Medieval fantasy visual tropes in his re-imagining. All the same, many of the fantasy genre elements of Maleficent are derivative of Stromberg’s previous work and similarly CGI-heavy films past – something that did not go unnoticed by the film’s detractors, either (see the frequent comparisons to Avatar, Lord of the Rings, and so forth).
Cinderella goes further than the live-action fairy tale movies before it in this respect, thanks in no small part to director Kenneth Branagh’s creative vision for the film – one that is fittingly grandiose and theatrical for a story that is full to the brim with big emotion, no less. At the same time, Cinderella is like Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent in that it doesn’t break new ground so much as it uses the tools available to re-tell a fairy tale through moving pictures that stir feelings of nostalgia for older filmgoers and charm those hearing the story for the first time. That is not to say that The Jungle Book has completely different goals (it doesn’t), but there’s also a sense with the latter that it’s attempting (and succeeding) at truly telling its well-known tale in a way that is truly different (in addition to being shinier) than how it has been recounted on the big screen before.
Indeed, Favreau’s The Jungle Book being heralded as an example of next-level cinematic digital-era storytelling (placing it in the company of such films as Avatar and Life of Pi), with respect to how it creates a living and breathing vision of the jungles of India primarily through the use of CGI and 3D imagery. Favreau and his director of photography, Bill Pope (The Matrix trilogy, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) in turn effectively pull viewers further into a world created by countless VFX artists, producing immersive shots and capturing the onscreen action from camera angles that would be far more difficult to manage, had the movie instead been photographed using practical sets and/or real-world locations. Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent both succeed in recreating the 2D-animated imagery from their traditional cartoon predecessors for the digital era of movies, but most critics seem to agree: The Jungle Book is a more technically-accomplished film, when it comes to using CGI to both enhance the quality of storytelling and evolve a story beyond how it was told using older filmmaking tools (more on that balance of tradition and innovation later).
Trust In Your CGI Costars
Jungle Book, far more than Disney’s live-action fairy tale re-tellings that have come before, pushes the envelope when it comes to allowing young Neel Sethi as Mowgli the Man-Cub to interact with the computer-animated creatures around him. It doesn’t come as a big surprise that the now-twelve year old Sethi’s best acting in the film comes during the scenes where he’s playing make-believe opposite digitally-rendered (and talking) sloth bears, Bengal tigers, panthers, and even a “Gigantopithecus” named King Louie. Sethi’s imagination no doubt served him well during filming on these sequences, but he was further assisted by performers on the Jungle Book‘s sound stages – including, puppeteers from the Jim Henson Creature Shop, who brought stand-in puppets to life so that Sethi could better make eye contact with (and even touch) his CGI non-human costars.
Previously-released Disney live-action fairy tale films have come relatively close to fully integrating real-life human actors with the computer-animated environments and fantastical creatures around them, yet there’s still been something of a disconnect between these two elements – resulting in stilted interactions between Mia Wasikowska’s Alice and Wonderland/Underland’s CGI inhabitants, Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent and the the magical creatures of the Moors, and Lily James’ Ella and her mouse companions in Cinderella. That presents a problem because (in concept) part of what makes these re-imaginings appealing is the fun of getting to see a real-life person interact with fantasy characters and seamlessly exist in the same reality as them, much like their 2D animated counterparts did in Disney’s animated features. When these live-action remakes fall short in that regard, it quickly becomes all the more apparent that what you’re really being shown are just actors in front of green screens.
That’s not to say that The Jungle Book is flawless in this respect, as there are certainly moments in the movie where Sethi’s Mowgli feels somewhat removed from his surroundings and/or the animals around him. Nevertheless, the film does a pretty dang good job of making you believe that Sethi really is doing things like hugging Bagheera or floating down a river using Baloo like a waveboard – something that allows the relationships between Mowgli and his friends to resonate all the stronger on an emotional level, too.
I Wanna Be Like You (But Not)
Nostalgia is very much a key ingredient to Disney’s live-action fairy tales films, especially when they pay homage to their animated predecessors by re-creating iconic visuals from them and/or incorporating elements of their musical score (or, in the case of Jungle Book, actual songs too). However, from a storytelling standpoint, these movies have so far aspired to be more than just paint-by-number when it concerns their narratives. Alice in Wonderland shifts away from the highly-episodic story structure of its own animated predecessor to create a narrative that’s part coming of (adult) age allegory, part Chronicles of Narnia-Esque fantasy/adventure. Maleficent similarly places a Wicked inspired spin on its source material’s storyline – painting the eponymous Sleeping Beauty antagonist in a more sympathetic light and even incorporating some unexpectedly heavy subject matter into the mix (to be exact, a sexual assault parable).
Cinderella (2015) is more traditional in terms of its narrative, in the sense that it’s very similar to the storyline of Disney’s 1950 animated movie; the main difference is that Branagh’s film includes much more onscreen development time for its characters (heroic and villainous alike). Disney’s 1967 animated Jungle Book is a very episodic, yet playful, cartoon musical, but Favreau’s live-action/CGI re-imagining imbues the storyline with a more clearly-defined three act narrative structure – giving rise to a noticeably archetypal, yet at the same time sturdy and fully-realized hero’s journey storyline for young Mowgli. There’s even a meta-narrative layer to the movie, in the sense that it’s a film that relies on cutting-edge visual effects in order to bring its story properly to life, at the same time that it offers a positive message about the benefits of technology (see: Mowgli possessing a knack for creating inventions or “tricks”, as his wolf family calls them).
It’s been established now that Disney’s live-action fairy tale movie formula calls for these films to reference the animated features that came before them, at the same time that they forge their own paths (and even leave the door open for a sequel or two). Jungle Book seems to occupy a comfortable middle ground between the extremes that we have seen in the three other Disney live-action fairy tales so far. If Cinderella is maybe too “old-fashioned” for its own good, then Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent go so far with re-inventing their respective stories that the scenes where they transition to being love letters to their Disney animated movie inspirations feel jarring; that is, out of place for this version of the fairy tale. Favreau’s The Jungle Book is simply the best of the lot, when it comes to oscillating comfortably between its director’s creative vision and the requirement that it pay respect to the Mouse House’s animated filmography.
The Jungle Book has raised the bar for future Disney live-action fairy tale movies (for the reasons that were listed above), so it will be interesting to see how well upcoming Mouse House fairy tale re-tellings prove able to meet that challenge. Alice Through the Looking Glass, for example, appears to maintain an aesthetic consistency with Alice in Wonderland based on the trailer footage (even with a new director at the helm, in James Bobin) – yet it reportedly features far more practical sets than its predecessor. Moreover, Through the Looking Glass is poised to explore brand-new story territory, similar to the upcoming Peter’s Dragon remake: a film that, judging by its teaser trailer and the new design for the dragon Elliott, is dancing to the beat of a different drum than the whimsical live-action/animated musical of the same name that came before it.
By comparison, it sounds as though Beauty and the Beast will take a similar approach to re-imagining its animated counterpart as The Jungle Book does; mixing fresh material with elements from its predecessor (including its songs) with modern CGI and live-action, under the director of a filmmaker who, like Favreau, has a knack for this sort of fare, in the form of Oscar-winner Bill Condon (the screenwriter behind Chicago and director of Dreamgirls). Hopefully these films will match and/or exceed the level of artistic quality achieved by The Jungle Book and inspire the storytellers who follow to step up their own games. After all, there are a whole lot more of these live-action Disney fairy tale movies, just waiting in the pipeline.