Casual movie fans may recognize Jon Favreau as the guy who plays Happy Hogan in the Marvel movies, and they may also know him as the director who got the MCU ball rolling with Iron Man 11 years ago. But there’s a lot more to Favreau then Marvel.
Favreau got his start as an actor, having appeared in Rudy, but his breakthrough came in 1996’s Swingers, which he starred in and co-wrote. That movie also boosted the career of Vince Vaughn, who followed Favreau when he stepped into the director’s chair with his first feature Made, about two longtime friends and boxers who get mixed up in a money laundering scheme.
With his second directorial effort, Favreau not only avoided the sophomore jinx but created a Christmas perennial with 2003’s Elf, starring Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart and Zooey Deschanel. One can’t get through the holidays without hearing “You sit on a throne of lies,” or “We elves try to stick to the four main food groups candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup.”
Favreau showed a knack for mixing low-tech practical effects with high-tech but subtle CGI, as he explained to Rolling Stone.
“We didn’t have a tremendous amount of dough … I like the techniques and technologies used when I was growing up. I like motion-control, models, matte paintings. It feels timeless. And stop-motion is my favorite. There were a lot of challenges to do that stuff in stop-motion. I had to fight very hard not to do that stuff in CGI. There’s no CGI in there, except for some snowing.”
Favreau followed that film with the fantasy Zathura, based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg. It didn’t gain as much attention as other movies based on that author’s work like Jumanji or The Polar Express, but it made Favreau ready to tackle a little film called Iron Man.
Enter the MCU
Favreau had some experience with Marvel characters, having appeared in the 2003 film Daredevil. Little did he know how immense the MCU would become, but he was savvy enough to take a chance on Robert Downey Jr., who at the time was still struggling to overcome his bad reputation as a drug addict.
“The best and worst moments of Robert’s life have been in the public eye. He had to find an inner balance to overcome obstacles that went far beyond his career. That’s Tony Stark,” the director told USA Today.
The gamble paid off, with Iron Man raking in $318 million. Favreau and Marvel had a major success out of the gate. Iron Man 2 couldn’t help but be a major hit, although it’s not nearly as well-regarded as its predecessor. Favreau stumbled with Cowboys and Aliens, a science fiction western fusion that was a disappointment commercially and creatively.
Rebounding with food and Disney
Favreau decided to go back to his roots with Chef in 2014, directing and starring in a low-key movie about a cook who realizes his dream of opening a food truck and traveling across the country.
“It woke me up,” the director told The Oregonian. “It was great. It made me feel like I still had my chops and I could still do what I did 20 years ago. I think subconsciously you always question whether you’ve lost a step and can still do what you did when you were younger. To be able to be getting the nice notices that I’m getting and selling out the theaters that we’re in and spreading across the country, it really feels wonderful.”
From there, Favreau returned to Disney and the blockbuster. The man who had once eschewed CGI was now going all in a new version of The Jungle Book three years ago. Aside from its human lead character, the rest of the film was created in the computer. It wasn’t filmed in any jungle, but in a warehouse in Los Angeles.
Now Favreau aims to repeat that success with his take on the beloved The Lion King, using the same techniques. Some fans worried the film would be nothing more than a shot-for-shot remake, but Favreau assured fans this wasn’t the case.
“The original holds up incredibly well, so the challenge here was to tell a story in a different way but still deliver on people’s expectations while surprising them somehow.”
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