The Jungle Book was one of 2016’s biggest family hits, a live-action feature adapted from Walt Disney’s classic animated version of Rudyard Kipling’s seminal work of children’s adventure-fiction about a boy raised by talking animals in a magical jungle setting. Directed by Jon Favreau, the film charmed critics and enraptured audiences with an epic story told through cutting edge visual effects and performance capture animation; allowing the story to take place in a vibrant jungle landscape populated by nearly photo-realistic animals despite having been lensed largely on sets and green-screen and featuring no live animal actors.
Brigham Taylor, a longtime Disney development executive who helped shepherd the original Pirates of The Caribbean to screen in an era when Disney was still unsure about live-action blockbusters aimed at audiences beyond young children, stepped into a producer role for the film and is now looking to develop more features within the studio.
In an interview with Screen Rant, Taylor talked with us making of The Jungle Book, how it fits into Disney’s slate which has an increased focus on Marvel superheroes and Star Wars, and the prospects of other upcoming Disney properties including TRON 3 and Magic Kingdom:
Are you happy with the success of the The Jungle Book?
Brigham Taylor: Yes, it’s very gratifying to have such a wonderful reception. It’s wonderful.
You were one of the folks on the ground floor of getting Disney to say “yes” to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies years ago, back when that wasn’t a style of film (live-action adventure movies) that was considered a priority for the studio, correct?
Brigham Taylor: That’s true, way back in 2003. I was right there.
Brigham Taylor: I love it. We were taking, back in the early 2000s, me and a couple friends who were in development here… when we read Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; there was a whole section on Star Wars, with George Lucas trying to explain to his friends that he was trying to make a Disney-type movie. And I was so struck by that, that he’d been inspired by 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Swiss Family Robinson, which gave rise to Star Wars and Raiders of The Lost Ark, and I thought “Disney’s not making those movies anymore!” And that got us started thinking about Pirates and how that could be right in that subgenre of amazing general-audience action-adventure that I grew up on. It’s really thrilling, and I see Jungle Book as an extension of that.
The new Jungle Book makes some key changes from both the animated version and Kipling’s original text, particularly the ending – almost to the point where some have critiqued that it carries a different or even almost entirely opposite message or moral. How would you respond to that?
Brigham Taylor: I think that’s accurate. I think it came out a notion to tell a strong story, and the notion of asking “what’s the more interesting version of this kid’s story?” What was his story? What identity did he land on? What was the more satisfying notion – which was all agreed was a story about this kid finding his place in the jungle, not having to leave. In some way maybe that’s backed by a more contemporary sensibility – that’s not for me to judge – but it felt more correct and more satisfying way to tell it today. And we felt comfortable being able to say this should be its own thing, that it obvious stands on the shoulders of the original and Kipling but also felt comfortable about taking some left turns. We always felt really good about it.
There’s a lot of talk today about the supposed loss of a “sense of history” and “context” when it comes to critics and audiences looking at work by certain older writers. Given that Rudyard Kipling isn’t an author who can easily escape the word “problematic” in the parlance of the day, was there any worry about running into that sort of criticism with The Jungle Book?
Brigham Taylor: I think – there wasn’t a ton of conversation about that, other than an awareness in everyone’s mind of the context of a time a writer works in, and that as we evolve and our sensibilities evolve we’re always working through our filter of today. So we didn’t worry so much about that as we did worry about using our current sensibilities – Jon [Favreau] especially – telling a story that he could stand behind. Because clearly, you can look back on many things and say “that’s a product of its time” or “that’s a product of thinking we don’t subscribe to anymore;” but we also owe a debt to Kipling because of his imagination and creativity and the strong themes that remain very much intact.
But I think you have to be true in telling the story for today’s audience and current sensibilities, and I think Jon is very attuned to that and very sensitive to telling an inclusive story. And coming back to your original point about leaving and the jungle, that theme was important to us, of inclusion.
You also produced another recent Disney film, Tomorrowland, which received a much more divided reaction than The Jungle Book did. How did you feel about the response in that case?
Brigham Taylor: I don’t know that I have new or salient thoughts, y’know? I know that all of us, we wanted to reach the broadest possible audience, you want that impact, and we didn’t quite have that – I think everyone recognizes that. You have that desire to connect with your audience. But I had a tremendous time working on that film and being around Damon and Brad as they figured out this wonderful sort of alternate history, how it happened, and leaning into these themes of optimism for the future – which sometimes feels like it’s in short supply. So I love that it exists, I love that it’s out there, and I feel like the test of time is kinder than the initial release. I have a legitimate hope for that. And I talk to a lot of people who saw it and really enjoyed it.
So many factors go into successfully releasing a film with your date and your competition and your marketing strategy – we have amazing marketing folks up here at Disney – but it’s always a challenge, and I understand how much of a challenge it is to introduce such a strange and complex concept. So maybe we didn’t do that as best as we could, but I hope over the coming years that people come back. I’m working on a lot of movies right now that [are based on movies] that didn’t enjoy the greatest initial success, whether it be The Rocketeer or a groundbreaking film like Tron or even an animated film like Sword in The Stone. Time is kinder sometimes than the immediate frame. That’s what I’m hoping for.
You mentioned Tron there – is this perhaps some hint or confirmation that there might be some life left in Tron?
Brigham Taylor: I always hope for that. I just had a wonderful visit to Shanghai, where they have an amazing attraction based on TRON: Legacy. The designers just did such an amazing job creating the feeling of stepping onto The Grid, and that indelible visual world that [Steven] Lisberger created and [Joseph] Kosinski explored… and I think there’s a real stickiness to that that I hope can grow into a film or whatever else. So I don’t know what I’d “hint” at other than that I hope for that, and that there’s obviously been conversations.
There are a lot of big stars in The Jungle Book doing the animal voices. Was there any one in particular you considered a major “get” for the production?
Brigham Taylor: It’s hard not just to think of Billy Murray right off the bat because, especially to people of my generation, he’s just a living comedic legend. And he has such an interesting stature and a career that’s taken such interesting twists and turns over the last couple decades, plus one of the well known facts is that he’s a very elusive “get.” So for us to just be able to find him and for him to give such a memorable performance, I think we’re all still just giddy about that. More importantly, he just brought such an interesting presence to that role – to this character that needs to embody an open-minded free-spiritedness – and I don’t know anyone whose better at that than Bill.
Some found it unusual or “topical” that the role of Kaa was recast with a female voice in Scarlett Johansson, which some felt changed the dynamic of the character and their role in the story. Was there a particular “intent” behind that – perhaps to increase the gender diversity of the cast or some other concern?
Brigham Taylor: I feel like definitely the film benefited from gender variation, when you look at a story and think about adapting it and come to the realization that you have a virtually all male cast and you think “Well, that doesn’t feel reflective of our audience today.” And we really increased, in our version, the role of Rasha the wolf-mother which felt vital and important to highlight.
The characterization of Kaa changed more because of the version of the story we were telling, and the gender change was more about “wouldn’t it be cool to do this?” and who better for that than Scarlet? There’s nothing in the role that’s inherent to gender, so we just went with the most interesting casting.
Is there any one project, maybe not in development yet, based on the Disney theme parks or the classic Disney properties, that you’d be especially excited to produce?
Brigham Taylor: That’s a wonderful question – exactly the thing I should be thinking about as a producer. I think about this stuff all the time, and in this moment you catch me the most recent one was The Rocketeer, where we’ve gotten our partners to invest in a wonderful new take and I couldn’t be more excited about that. Another that’s already been announced is The Sword in The Stone; which I’m very exicted about because it’s the first Disney movie I remember seeing – the animated version – and its so rich and wonderful so many ways it can be retold in a live-action context. So those are a couple that, right now, I’m incredibly excited about.
I’d actually really want to know from you, what would you be excited about that we may not be talking about yet?
On that note, is there still hope for Jon Favreau’s long-gestating Magic Kingdom project?
Brigham Taylor: That’s an interesting one. I don’t doubt that it could have its day in court at some point.
The Jungle Book is available on Digital HD on August 23, 2016 & releases on Blu-ray August 30, 2016.