The bear necessities of animation

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The technology used in the 2016 remake of The Jungle Book is helping to change the way we think of film, writes Shelby McKeown

By Shelby McKeown

The release of Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, an adventure film for the family, is a turning point for animated filmmaking. Forty-nine years after the 1967 animation release, The Jungle Book has made its comeback with a stellar cast and the potential for being the most successful live-action remake to this day. The Jungle Book brings to life the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi) and his animal companions Baloo (Bill Murray), Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), Shere Khan (Idris Elba), and King Louie (Christopher Walken). Raised by wolves in the jungle, Mowgli takes the audience on an adventure within the Indian jungle, as the threat of Shere Khan the tiger follows him.

This 2016 remake is different to that of the 1967 version- everything is just a bit more real. The jungle animals look so authentic in the way they move, hunt and strike that it is easy to forget that the film is actually entirely animated. Well, despite Mowgli the man cub of course.

Favreau has created a film that is potentially threatening the meaning and substance of animated film- not in a bad way- just in a more ‘revolutionary’ way. As it stands, The Jungle Book is the most animated live-action film to date, which means it has brought up a bunch of questions and challenges for the filming industry. Questions and challenges on the way films are categorised and boxed into terms and genres that may not truly reflect the film itself. Terms and genres like ‘live-action’ and ‘animation’. The Jungle Book has been labelled ‘live-action’ by most film critics, as well as Disney’s publicity team (the studio network of The Jungle Book).

And there are plenty of these Disney films currently like this out there- it’s like we are in a period of Disney re-incarnation. The Jungle Book is just another live-action remake to add to the list with Alice in Wonderland (2010), Maleficent (2014) and Cinderella (2015)- and there are loads more to come.

Broadly speaking, this term ‘live-action’ for The Jungle Book is not wrong, as the film does centre on a human boy. A boy, Neel Sethi, who brings the Indian jungle to life with his human talent, which could not have been replicated as well through computer animation (or could it?). However, arguably, animation has also played a part in the film being classified as ‘live-action’. The developments in technology today has meant animals are not just drawings, they are animated so successfully that they tap into what we believe is a real animal. Despite their singing and dancing, they move just like a tiger, bear or even a snake would. And I guess, I wonder, is this why we are so adamant that The Jungle Book of 2016 is a live-action film? Because it looks like one?

In saying this, Favreau could not have taken many more steps to make it more truly ‘live-action’. Imagine the chaos Favreau would be dealing with if he had actual live animals on set. What a disaster. What a laugh. The film obviously required animation, as animation allows the animals to be animals, whilst also having them move, speak and express themselves in the way the film and Favreau wants them to. Understandably Favreau needed both Mowgli as human, and the animals as animated. But when so much animation is used to produce The Jungle Book, is the film more than just live-action? Apart from Mowgli, the film is completely computer generated.

Terms and classifications of films are now changing because of the way technology is used within filming. And The Jungle Book is a film that could revolutionise the way in which we see animation and live-action films in the future.

With the 1967 The Jungle Book, the audience was never confused over whether they were watching animation or not, with its cartoon-animated Mowgli and his goodhumoured cartoon animal friends. For many, it was easy to identify the film as animation. Animation back in the day was known by cel animation- those transparent sheets used for hand drawn animation, as well as being kid friendly, and usually bundled under musical Disney cartoons. Today, computer technology has transformed animation in more ways than one. As animation is more than a children’s movie, more than celluloid sheets, and more than a cartoon.

Favreau may have used green screen, puppets and advanced computer technology, but the approach he took for animation was respectful and similar to Walt Disney’s animated film of The Jungle Book (1967).

Both Walt Disney and Jon Favreau pushed the boundaries of animation technology, with Disney himself introducing the first synchronised cartoon with sound- Steam Boat Willie (1928), and Favreau pushing the boundaries on computer animation technology.

Favreau treated the early stages of filming like any animated film, using key-frame animation, and applied the work to motion-capture filming with virtual sets. With 2,000 animators and digital artists working on the film, it was completed in a LA warehouse, nowhere near the Indian jungle- despite what the film presents to the audience. Favreau’s technologies, in comparison to Walt Disney’s, are more advanced which has resulted in his animation barely looking like animation now. It looks real.

Favreau’s use of realism was also just another approach taken from Walt Disney. Favreau’s animated jungle and its animals replicate a world that is believable and plausible for its audience. The animals are so genuinely real- as 2016 Baloo looks very different to the cartoon Baloo, seen in the 1967 version. But that is because of the development of animation technology, not because it’s not animation. Favreau’s utilises Walt Disney’s illusion of movement, with all of his jungle animals moving just like an animal would, done brilliantly. Favreau also used Disney’s approach of anthropomorphism- a fantastic word for animals with human qualities, just like Disney is renowned for. Almost all of Favreau’s jungle animals talk, and many have distinct and recognisable personalities- Baloo is a crack up with his witty one liners.

Favreau’s animation may have been different, but he did follow through with many of Walt Disney’s animation styles. Even though Favreau’s use of realism, thanks to the advancement of animation, has made the film that bit scarier (okay, you got me, way scarier), Favreau has also ensured he brought back those cherished memories of the 1967 version too. The two major songs, ‘The Bare Necessities’ and ‘I Wanna Be Like You’, as well as the animals’ characters themselves, are a great reminder for many of the audience of the older version from 1967. The Jungle Book (2016) is a film that is completely animated but seems to have been pigeon-holed into a distinct term, live-action, when technically, The Jungle Book also could be classified as animation. And even The Jungle Book filmmakers have trouble confirming what the film actually is. Favreau, in an interview with Animation Magazine, says “it would qualify for either… But honestly the line is blurring so much between the two, especially with a film like this, you can call it either one.”

But, if we call it both, then it opens a whole new can of worms. It would mean films with live-action are animation, and films like The Jungle Book could see live-action films entering into animation genres and winning animation awards. Could The Jungle Book be the first live-action film to win an Oscar for Best Animated Film? Technically it could. Already The Jungle Book meets the strict guidelines of many well regarded definitions of ‘animation’. The Academy of Motion Picture and Sciences (The Oscars), defines animation itself on its website. “An animated feature film is defined as a motion picture with a running time of more than 40 minutes, in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique. Motion capture by itself is not an animation technique.

In addition, a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time.” And if we read through all the jargon, The Jungle Book could be the film that destabilises the line between what is live-action and animation. As The Jungle Book is a film that uses extensive animation technology and a majority of animated characters. Yet it is called a live-action film. And in saying that, could it also win Best Picture? It could happen. Especially with its huge success- The Jungle Book hit the $800 million mark at the worldwide box office by week 5 of its release, making it the second biggest debut in April.

The Jungle Book has threatened the way in which animation and live-action is perceived within the filming industry. A film that is not truly live-action, but is also not truly animation. Has The Jungle Book created a whole new area for film? The lines have certainly blurred with what makes a film animation. It makes one ponder, with todays technologies, what are the bare necessities of animation?