It’s easy to feel jaded when it comes to CGI-heavy cinema, but every so often a film pushes the technical boundaries and succeeds. Case in point: Disney’s live-action reimagining of “The Jungle Book.”
Jon Favreau’s family film is a roaring success, an entertaining, immersive and fun creation that may be a bit intense for the littlest viewers, but should please just about everyone else. It nicely captures the care-free feeling of the aimless but joyful 1967 animated hit.
One of my earliest filmgoing memories is seeing that adaptation of Kipling’s “Jungle Book” during its 1984 rerelease. The tale of young Mowgli ranks near the middle of the Disney pantheon, but characters like Baloo the bear and songs like “The Bare Necessities” are recalled fondly.
“Iron Man” director Jon Favreau’s visually sumptuous new film ups the action ante, and manages to add enough story to make this that rare revisiting that feels warranted. It’s a stronger, bolder effort than the original, and that has to be considered a surprise.
Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks wisely spend little time on backstory, instead plunging into action within seconds of the film’s opening. The “man-cub” Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is once again on the run with his wolf-pack “siblings,” but this is just practice.
Still, even when attempting to outrun a predator – in this friendly case, it’s the black panther that first discovered the orphaned infant (the panther Bagheera is voiced by Ben Kingsley) – the film establishes a central conflict, that of a human using the skills of a human while living and being raised as an animal.
Early in the film we’re introduced to the villainous Bengal tiger Shere Khan (voiced with steely authority by the great Idris Elba), whose connection to Mowgli is revealed as time progresses. He wants the man-cub for his own reasons, and Mowgli’s wolf family knows action is necessary.
Before they decide what to do, however, Mowgli announces his intent to leave. Bagheera will take him to the man village, a mysterious place that is home to the much-feared “red flower” – aka, fire.
Mowgli and Bagheera are soon separated. After a hypnotic encounter with an enormous, sensually slithering python (Kaa is voiced, too briefly, by Scarlett Johansson), the boy meets Baloo. This large, mischievous, scheming but lovable bear is voiced by Bill Murray, who brings to the film expected humor, and perhaps unexpected poignancy.
Baloo teaches Mowgli about life’s “bare necessities,” and yes, they sing that memorable song. But the reappearance of Bagheera, a monkey kidnapping that leads to the court of orangutan King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken), and the threat of Shere Khan make for a fast-moving, thrilling final third.
Key to the film’s success is the technical wizardry that makes it seem like the animals are, indeed, talking. This is next-level CGI work, and it’s so jaw-droppingly successful that one almost forgets it’s all birthed on a computer.
The voice casting only adds to the allure. In addition to Elba, Murray, Kingsley, Johansson and Walken, there is Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as Mowgli’s wolf mother and the late Garry Shandling as a lovably nervous porcupine. Shandling’s is a small role, but coming so soon after his passing seems especially touching.
However, there are flaws here, and one is rather notable. Young lead Neel Sethi is 12 years old, and has just one other film to his credit. He’s a likable actor who appears very comfortable on screen, but he’s a novice, and it shows. The role is written and played with a contemporary ease that doesn’t quite fit, and as written, Mowgli is far and away the least interesting character onscreen.
Still, “The Jungle Book” represents Disney’s finest attempt yet at bringing some of its classic animated characters to live-action life. “Cinderella” and “Maleficent” had their moments, and even Tim Burton’s god-awful “Alice in Wonderland” had visual pizazz to spare.
But the tale of Mowgli is the first to capture some of the joy of Disney’s hand-drawn gems. Perhaps it is not a classic family film, but it is undoubtedly a very good one.
“The Jungle Book”
3.5 stars (out of four)
Starring: Neel Sethi and the voices of Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o.
Director: Jon Favreau
Running time: 105 minutes
Rating: PG for some sequences of scary action and peril.
The Lowdown: The man-cub Mowgli flees the jungle after a threat from the tiger Shere Khan and embarks on a journey of self-discovery.