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'Jungle' Goes Back to Drawing Board : Movies: Disney's live-action version of the Kipling tale has the same basic story as the animated hit. But unlike that one, this film has real animals and a balance-of-nature message.

December 22, 1994|RICK FLEISHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Film remakes themselves are certainly not news; this year alone has seen new versions of "Love Affair," "Miracle on 34th Street" and "Little Women," among others.

But Disney's forthcoming version of the classic Rudyard Kipling tale "The Jungle Book" is noteworthy not only because it's the third film version of the tale, but because Disney is also gambling by remaking its own very successful animated version, released in 1967, into a live-action version.

"Rudyard Kipling's the Jungle Book," which stars Cary Elwes, Sam Neill and Jason Scott Lee as Mowgli and opens Sunday, is based only loosely on the first "Jungle Book" (1942), which starred Sabu as Mowgli, the wild boy raised by a wolf pack to respect the ways of nature and distrust man, and the later animated musical version, which featured the voices of Sebastian Cabot and Phil Harris.

But the basic story is the same, and parents everywhere may well wonder, why tell the story again, especially when the musical version remains a family favorite?

Edward S. Feldman ("Witness," "Save the Tiger") says the first version "had no jungle. It was made in a vacuum--on a sound stage in Burbank during wartime." Director and screenwriter Stephen Sommers, who had not seen the 1942 version before signing on, agrees.

"I felt we could never outdo the animated version; it's actually my favorite Disney film," Sommers said. "But we could do some things they didn't do. For instance, we could show how the animals' names came from the Hindi language. We tried to pay some homage to the previous version by keeping the names the same."

Indeed, King Louie, Bagheera and Shir Kahn are all back this time out. As Feldman says, "If you didn't keep the same animals, the audience would laugh you out of the theater."

There was also the chance to make what Feldman calls "a plea for the animals" in this edition. Sommers points to Kipling's use of the "law of the jungle" in his stories, and the film carries a low-key message of preservation of the balance of nature, a thread Disney seems to be following lately with "The Lion King" and next summer's "Pocahontas."

The Disney decision to revisit its own material started in the early '90s, when co-producer Raju Patel ("Bachelor Party") and his father, Sharad, brought Disney a "Jungle Book" script they had commissioned, and ended in Disney's commitment to the $30-million film. Disney brought Sommers aboard as writer and director and called upon the veteran Feldman to produce.

Sommers, who directed 1993's "The Return of Huck Finn" for Disney, wrote a new script that kept a lot of the Kipling story of Mowgli's encounter with the imperial British but added an adventure element that had been lacking in the animated "Jungle Book."

"They said it would be a couple of weeks shooting in India," Feldman says, laughing. "A couple of weeks . . . ."

The location work in Jodhpur, in fact, took about eight weeks. Sommers points to three major challenges to the shoot: "Kids, animals and India. We used all real animals; we couldn't use animatronics because we were dealing with animals people are used to seeing--bears, tigers, wolves."

The crew tried one robot monkey, but "we all cracked up when we saw it on film; it just wasn't right," Sommers says. "People know how these animals really look and move; it's not dinosaurs or monsters."

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