By now many of you have met the Gigantopithecus, a gargantuan, 10-foot tall resident of India and your new King Louie. With photorealism as the guiding force for the new interpretation of Disney’s The Jungle Book, director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) wanted to anchor every detail in as much reality as possible for a film featuring talking animals. That created a problem when it came to the movie’s great ape. In Disney’s 1967 animated movie, Louie (voiced by Louis Prima) is an orangutan. But ginger-haired primates aren’t endemic to the Seeonee jungle of India, where Rudyard Kipling’s classic is set. The maniacal — and musical — monarch needed a new species.
Favreau found his answer in this extinct ancestor of the orangutan that roamed the jungles of India and Asia million of years ago (The ancient ape died out about 100,000 years ago.) The animal was, as its name suggests, huge, weighing more than 1,000 pounds, double the size of an adult male orangutan. And, voiced by Christopher Walken, the gigantophithecus cuts a far more intimidating figure than his diminutive relative.
“It sparked my imagination and allowed me to do something tonally different and more exciting,” Favreau says. “Plus, no one knew what it looked like, so I could take some liberties and make it look like Christopher Walken.”
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And sing like him too. Prima sang the swinging, bongo-heavy hit, I Wan’na Be Like You in the ’67 film. This time to match Louie’s new species, Walken’s motion-captured performance includes a song-and-dance number that’s part Prima, part Marlon Brando from Apocalypse Now. (Once you see Louie surrounded by the worshipping Bandar-log monkeys you’ll know what we mean.) In addition to hiring WETA (King Kong, Planet of the Apes) to complete the CG for the sequence, Favreau enlisted composer John Debney and the song’s original lyricist, Richard Sherman, to revamp the tune for the PG-rated action adventure. Sherman, who also wrote songs for Mary Poppins (including the singular “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”), sparked to the word Gigantopithecus and rewrote the lyrics, rhyming the multi-syllabic word with ridiculous and magnificus.
“It was one of those things where me creating limitations and actually wanting to deviate from the original, opened up the opportunity to allow all these other artists — musical and visual, character designers and WETA — to pull this stuff all together to make this sequence that is now an exhilarating action set piece at the heart of the film,” Favreau says.
The director also planted an Easter egg inside the scene for die-hard Walken fans. When man-cub Mowgli rummages through Louie’s treasures as the ape sleeps, it’s a cowbell that rouses him — a nod to Walken’s iconic SNL skit. Because, apparently, even the jungle needs more cowbell.
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