The Gene Siskel Film Center’s annual Renaissance Gala, honoring producer-writer-actor and “The Lion King” director Jon Favreau, could have been subtitled “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
Billed as “Marvel, Movies and More: Honoring Jon Favreau in Conversation with Robert Downey Jr.,” the event Saturday at the ballroom of the Four Seasons Chicago turned into a mutual admiration society between Favreau and longtime collaborator and friend Robert Downey Jr. From the red-carpet remarks to the hourlong interview anchoring the event, the enduring bond between the two masters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe remained in deep focus.
“He’s my brother,” Favreau said as they fielded questions together on the red carpet. “It’s a relationship of mutual respect. We’ve been the president of each other’s fan clubs for a decade now. Through our work together, we’ve grown side by side. We’ve believed in each other throughout the entire process.”
Their creative partnership began in 2008 with “Iron Man,” directed by Favreau and starring Downey, and continues through the Netflix series “The Chef Show,” bowing in November. “It’s like the closing night of a show. It’s our ‘Lion King’ moment,” said Downey, alluding to Favreau’s latest directorial effort, a re-envisioning of Disney’s 1994 animated classic, known for its hit songs, including “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Circle of Life.” “Tonight is going to be a walk down memory lane.”
Throughout the evening, Downey served as his friend’s biggest champion. “Jon isn’t into talking about himself,” he said. “But with ‘The Lion King,’ this is the year of Jon Favreau.” Not missing a beat, Favreau responded, “If you consider me a strong director, it’s because of my relationship with Robert. He came fully realized as an actor, whereas I didn’t come fully realized as a director.”
In 2010, Downey himself received the Siskel Center’s Renaissance Award, which honors those “who have advanced the art of cinema.” Previous honorees include Morgan Freeman, Nicole Kidman, George Lucas, Michael Mann and last year’s recipient, Ethan Hawke. Downey and his wife Susan, a producer whose credits include the upcoming “The Voyage of Doctor Doolittle,” starring her husband, serve on the center’s advisory board,
During the interview portion, the conversation returned to the crucial role of Chicago in Favreau’s creative development. “I moved here because all of my heroes were here,” Favreau said of his early years in the city, where he “cut his teeth” at ImprovOlympic and Second City. “I recall watching the greats like Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Steve Carell. It all comes back to Chicago.”
In 1988, when at 22 he moved to the city after a brief career on Wall Street, “I didn’t know yet what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want to not love what I do. I didn’t want to settle. I stopped here and saw ImprovOlympics and Second City. I called my dad and said, ‘I think I want to move here.’ Dad said, ‘You’re young enough that if you’re wrong, you still can do other things.’
“I broke into the Screen Actors Guild [through his Chicago assignments]. It was a place where I could explore all of my passions. So when I got my first break” — as the sidekick D-Bob in the football classic “Rudy” (1993) — “I was ready.”
During the interview portion, clips from Favreau’s greatest hits, including “Swingers” (1996), “Elf” (2003), “Iron Man” (2008), “Chef” (2014) and “The Jungle Book” (2016), were screened with Downey providing commentary. Then came a snippet from the highly anticipated “Lion King,” which opens July 19.
Calling the original “The Lion King” “part of Disney’s Mount Rushmore,” Favreau said, “It’s an old, old enduring myth. You’re just trying to keep the story out there for a new generation.” Another goal was capturing the essence of the Tony Award-winning Broadway edition, directed by Julie Taymor. “We have a really talented cast, including James Earl Jones,” who returns as the voice of Mustafa. “I want to make sure it’s respectful of the original. Plus, to get the kids to listen, it has to have the magic. So it has been a three-year journey, learning the [CGI] technology pixel by pixel to craft this thing.”
As the gala ended with Favreau accepting the Renaissance Award, he admitted, ‘It’s weird to get to the point in life where you receive lifetime achievement honors.” Reflecting on “the transformation from mouse to magician,” he said, “I am honored that stuff out of my imagination has become part of your life.