Why Jon Favreau made his ‘Jungle Book’ crew watch ‘Beverly Hills Chihuahua’

Jon Favreau”s Jungle Book is part of a big Disney effort to remake several of their animated classics into live action films – though in the case of The Jungle Book, much of the new film is an animated, motion-captured visual effects marvel.

To craft a believable CG jungle and the animals that inhabit it, Favreau”s team of VFX artists had to figure out how to make their Bagheera and King Louie and all the other creatures as realistic as possible. Essential to making them look real, they realized, was avoiding having their animals maneuver in a way they wouldn”t in reality – the physics had to be real.

The one major exception: These animals talk. Just about everything else about these animals” physicality aims for reality, except for their ability to speak English words. At a press event for the film last month, I asked Favreau and VFX supervisor Rob Legato about that.

What helped make talking jungle animals believable? Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

Yep, Favreau had his Jungle Book team watch the critically panned talking tiny dogs movie – for a lesson of what not to do.

“I would bring in footage. I would say let”s look at Beverly Hills Chihuahua. What did they do wrong?” Favreau said. “Let”s look at Dog with a Blog. Let”s look at everything.” (By the way, both titles he mentioned as, we assume, examples to not follow are fellow Disney projects.)

The visual effects team ultimately learned a few lessons: 1) Go for subtlety. In the footage shown to reporters in at the event in Hollywood”s El Capitan Theatre, we saw that Idris Elba”s Shere Khan commands attention, as the tiger speaks to all the animals gathered, but his mouth barely moves. 2) Take advantage of times when characters are speaking but the camera is not on them – Favreau pointed out that in Bambi, characters who are speaking are often not on screen. 3) Tweak the lighting and camera angle until you find out what works, and share that with the rest of your team. “When somebody comes up with a good version of talking, [I”d] say ‘okay, everybody gather round,”” Favreau explained of the collaborative process.

The director acknowledged that some animals have mouths that lend themselves to believably making the sounds of the English language better than others. “Snake – it”s harder,” he said. (Scarlett Johansson voices the snake Kaa in the film.) Some characters got more expressiveness than subtlety – Baloo, voiced by Bill Murray, comes off a little more cartoonish than his aim-for-photorealism CG co-stars in the footage shown to press.

Another example of talking animals the Jungle Book VFX team watched was a certain 1995 talking pig movie – much to the chagrin of Legato, the VFX supervisor joked. Legato, known for his Academy Award-winning VFX work on films like Avatar and Hugo, was up for an Oscar for Apollo 13, but “we lost rather badly to Babe, the talking pig movie,” Legato said. “And it was a trauma Jon knew about.”

Onstage at the El Captain for press Q&A, Legato put his own question to his director: Why did you insist on putting a pygmy hog in this movie? And why are you the one voicing the hog?

“We had to get you on the right side of history here,” Favreau quipped.

Come Oscars night 2017, Legato just might finally have his own Academy Award-winning talking pig movie. Can we hope for an acceptance speech thank you for Beverly Hills Chihuahua?

The Jungle Book opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, April 15.