There was a strange trend to the Disney live action films presented during D23 — a pattern almost at odds with the cherubic Disney trademark. Take a widely beloved property – say The Jungle Book or Pete’s Dragon – and ‘somber’ the whole thing up. These fairly innocuous children films have been turned into low-key meditations on the hardships of growing up. To be fair, I only saw about two-minutes of The Jungle Book & Pete’s Dragon. The remaining ninety some odd minutes could be a joy, with Mowgli doing cartwheels and Pete and his dragon high-fiving one another while some peppy tune blasts out; but judging from the trailers shown – both these films are going for a far more melancholic tone.
Director Jon Favreau came out on stage first and did a whole spiel about how state-of-the-art the effects works are in The Jungle Book and how the CGI is seamless and unnoticeable. The footage screened however begged to differ. Which isn’t to say it was bad – just that a CGI tiger is still a CGI tiger. The casting here seems to be key, Bill Murray’s voice as Baloo and Christopher Walken’s distinctive delivery as King Louie adding an almost surreal quality to the footage. Casting such recognizable voices in these roles grounds the film in reality. Sure – it’s still a talking bear but recognizing Bill Murray’s voice somehow makes the character all the more ‘real’.
There’s a nice somber beat in the trailer where Baloo quietly hums the quintessential ‘The Bare Necessities’ song in one long wide shot. The distance of the shot keeps the audience at arm’s remove. Here – the most cheery song of the Disney animated picture repurposed as a solemn hum whist drudging through the forest. As someone who likes really depressing children’s films (I’m looking at you – Where the Wild Things Are), color me intrigued for Favreau’s take on The Jungle Book.
Pete’s Dragon, directed by David Lowery, maintained that same subdued tone. There’s a sense of loss to the footage, of something intangible missing. Take a brief clip where Robert Redford looks at some crudely drawn picture of a dragon. “He drew this?” the great actor intones gravely – almost as if he himself were remembering a long forgotten friend. Perhaps this is the end result of our nostalgia driven culture. This need to recreate the past, something that (by its very nature) is over, leads to an inevitable sense of loss. Because the past can never be recreated. Perhaps these somber remakes are some meta-textual result of this, their own inability to recreate the joyfulness of their predecessors leaving them solemn and depressed.
The titular dragon didn’t make an appearance in the footage but there was a nice close-up shot of Pete’s hand petting the creature’s fur as it slowly changes color. I heard someone mention that there was an ‘Amblin’ vibe to the footage – an all too often cited moniker for children’s films; but that felt pretty apropos for the two or so odd minutes screened. There’s a nice earthy tone to the footage – a lot of browns, greens and yellows – at odds with the fantastical content, grounding the picture in reality.
I guess it’s strange to describe two films about talking animals as grounded – but here we are… Regardless – your children will more than likely cry. I approve.
The Jungle Book opens in theaters April 15, 2016
Pete’s Dragon opens in theaters August 12, 2016