“I think it’s very close to what Rudyard Kipling envisioned, which was an enormous leap in his imagination — a child literally living with and talking with animals.” That’s how Sir Ben Kingsley described his first impressions of Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK as he joined a group of 25 writers for some discussion leading into the film’s record-breaking recent release. “With all respect to its predecessor in the ’60’s, that was an animated cartoon child talking to animated cartoons, but this is a little boy, and we are blessed with him. Neel [Sethi] is amazing! What you see is he’s with animals, which is wonderful!” In the film, Sir Ben provides the voice of Bagheera, a black panther that helps raise Mowgli, serving somewhat as an overseer after placing the young man-cub in the care of wolves Rashka (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito). “I didn’t see him as a father figure at all,” recalls Sir Ben, “But I did see him in military terms as if I was training a young cadet into how to survive in, in particular circumstances. “
With that military connection in mind, Kingsley presented director Jon Favreau with a potential voice for Bagheera that bore an Indian accent, this thinking back to that there were both British and Indian officers serving in the Indian Army at the time that Kipling penned his original tale.
“I was fascinated with the military combination, but to play him as an Indian Colonel or General, probably a Colonel, ” he explained. “Jon felt that it didn’t fit the universality of the appeal of the story — that it might make it a province of one particular period of history, culture, hierarchy. So I think he made a very good choice in making it more more universal, more accessible.”
Bagheera serves to prepare Mowgli for certain stages in his life, and while Sir Ben doesn’t view him quite in a parental role, it’s Kingsley’s own experience as a father that has largely prepared him for the role.
“You have to prepare young people for life by lovingly introducing them to the fact that there is light and shade, that both exist side-by-side in life. If you dilute, distort, sugar coat, sentimentalize everything in the hope that you’re gonna keep a child’s attention, you won’t. To get the child’s attention, immediately go dark. Whenever I read stories to my children, they would always ask me to read the scary bits over and over again. They would love it, because they were hearing it in a safe place. That’s the ingredient. If they are introduced to that dark side of life in a really safe environment by their parents, then it’s fun.”
Drawing from his Shakespearean past, and citing Shakespeare as still being “the maestro of storytelling,” Sir Ben notes that the process of giving up his body to a team of digital artists miles away was an interesting task, but that he did get two days to work in the same room as Neel Sethi, allowing the duo to build up a relationship that would help shape their on-screen chemistry. In the end, he credits his director for pulling together what’s already being hailed as one of 2016’s greatest films.
“You really cannot embark on a massive project like this unless your director, he or she, has amazing taste and judgment. Jon has both, and therefore, it’s given that he has the intelligence to see the bigger picture always in his head. He was a wonderful guide as to the tone, timbre and pitch in the film. It was really wonderful experience.”