N THE LOS ANGELES set of Disney’s live-action take on The Jungle Book, ten year-old Neel Sethi is a lone analogue presence in an otherwise entirely digital world. “It’s overwhelming!” says Neel, but he could have fooled us. Playing jungle boy Mowgli may have kept him away from his parents’ Manhattan home for the past six months, but as he bounces enthusiastically along the length of a small runway of real jungle foliage
(which will later be inserted into a 360-degree virtual wilderness), there’s little sign that he’s homesick. He’s taken to his feature debut like a bear takes to the woods.
Remaking a 50 year-old beloved classic and reshaping it for a modern audience is no easy task, but director Jon Favreau was clear in his ambitions: to go beyond the kiddie movie that Walt Disney made, maintain the charm and relationships that everyone loves, and do it in a fresh enough way to justify a remake. Central to realising those ambitions was casting his human hero, and with a traditional casting call he auditioned more than 2,000 kids in Los
Angeles, New York, Canada, India, Australia and the UK. Despite having never acted in a feature film before, the super-confident Sethi wanted to audition for one simple reason: he really liked The Jungle Book. Fortunately, Favreau really liked Sethi.
“There was a certain quality we wanted, and we knew he was going to have to carry the film,” says the director. “So it was going to have to be somebody that had a certain charisma, a certain charm and certain qualities that I remember from the cartoon.” For Favreau, those qualities included playfulness, athleticism and, most importantly, a fierce intelligence. “I always like smart actors,”
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