Film Review: The Jungle Book

With live-action and 3D-rendered sequels and “reimaginings” of classic animated films cropping up left and right, Disney’s latest adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book demonstrates the third time’s the charm indeed – even if it can’t replace the original.

Director Jon Favreau’s take on the material is certainly charming, using a combination of techniques, including 21st-century motion-capture, to marry the human element of Stephen Sommers’s 1994 outing with the animated magic of the 1967 classic (the last film Walt Disney produced).

Although the story is familiar to generations of viewers, the jungle is so marvelously lush in 3D that the basics of the narrative almost take a back seat to an unending spectacle of foliage and wildlife. And the setting and its denizens are so convincingly realized that it is difficult to believe shooting took place entirely on an L.A. sound stage with what must have been ample reference photographs of the Indian jungle.

The Jungle Book
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Directed by Jon Favreau.
Starring Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong’o, Giancarlo Esposito, Scarlett Johansson.

Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a human boy, has been raised by the wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) among the pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), with a father figure in Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley), who joins the wolves in discouraging the boy’s human instinct to use tools.

When the feared tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) issues an ultimatum against him, refusing to accept a “man cub” in the jungle, Mowgli leaves his wolf-pack family, learning details of his origins from the enormous python Kaa (a role downsized to a vocal cameo for Scarlett Johansson), who serves as a hypnotist-antagonist here in the film tradition, rather than playing the ape-vanquishing ally of Kipling’s stories.

Bill Murray seizes the chance to endear himself to a new generation of fans with his signature abundance of personality playing the bear Baloo, agent of Mowgli’s escape from Kaa’s tightening coils and the boy’s second-act mentor figure.

Baloo and Mowgli become fast friends, with a lesson or two about breaking rules (mostly those of stern but well-meaning Bagheera), until the boy is kidnapped by apes and taken before King Louie (Christopher Walken), a Kong-sized Gigantopithecus who has his own designs on the human capacity to wield the “red flower” of fire. And as confrontation with Shere Khan finally approaches, even rule-abiding Bagheera is forced to accept the utility of Mowgli’s human tricks.

If the dialogue, like the simplified story, tends to be blunt and artless – next to the characters, the effects, and Bill Pope’s vivid cinematography, it is downright insipid – the screenplay by Justin Marks is the only weak link in the chain (though Idris Elba, ever an intense screen presence, makes less of an impression when he is reduced to a vocal track).

But more impressive than any effect is 12-year-old Neel Sethi as Mowgli, who exhibits pluck, heartfelt emotion, and no shortage of acrobats (his preparation for the role involved parkour training); as the only human actor throughout much of the story, Sethi has to perform double-duty (at least), and he does admirably throughout.

John Debney’s boisterous orchestral score, by contrast, hits all the right notes without ever distinguishing itself from the pack. The story’s two brief musical numbers are reserved for its champions of idiosyncracy: Murray’s rendition of “The Bare Necessities” provides an uptempo interlude; Walken’s aspirational “I Wan’na Be Like You,” though instantly familiar, feels more unnecessary.

Favreau nimbly balances Tennyson’s nature, “red in tooth and claw,” with classic Disney nature, “cute in youth and dotage,” capturing the fickle reality of life in the wild, with the majesty of an elephant herd forgotten in a moment as a silence is dashed by the frightening ferocity of a battle between big cats.

A sequel has already been greenlit. Any disappointed viewers may take solace in the knowledge that motion-capture sensation Andy Serkis is hard at work on a competing adaptation, with another A-list cast (including Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale), due out in 2018.