How does director Jon Favreau update Rudyard Kipling’s classic story “The Jungle Book,” already a Disney animated favorite from 1967? He looks to “Planet Earth.” The animals rendered in stunningly dazzling 3-D are so realistic, you feel as if you’re watching National Geographic. Favreau even places his camera in shots and angles that seem reminiscent of nonfiction nature programs.
That’s why it’s so jarring when Ben Kingsley’s voice pops out of the mouth of a sleek muscled panther, Bagheera, chatting amiably with man cub Mowgli (astonishingly good newcomer Neel Sethi). The realistic character designs – you can see Bagheera’s fuzzy soft fur perfectly – highlight the dissonance between Mowgli and his adopted wild animal family, a stark gulf between them. It offers a rather different feel to the story, which is otherwise quite faithful to the original source material and the original Disney film.
If you’re less than familiar with “The Jungle Book,” it’s about Mowgli, a young man cub (aka boy) rescued by Bagheera, raised by wolves, and stalked out of his home by the threatening Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a tiger with a chip on his shoulder about men. Mowgli has to leave the pack, and as he sets off on his own, he befriends the affable bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and tangles with King Louie the Orangutan (Christopher Walken). Adapted by Justin Marks, it’s a story about relying on oneself and others, and learning to stand up to, rather than run away from, your fears.
The draw here is the incredible visual design, though Favreau has amassed a stellar cast of voice actors to play these beloved characters. Scarlett Johansson has a memorable few minutes on screen as the seductive python Kaa. Murray seems born to be Baloo, and even sings “The Bare Necessities,” while Walken’s take on King Louie and his number “I Wanna Be Like You,” is unexpectedly great. Louie is designed as a great hulking beast, making him that much more of a power and a threat, crumbling the entire monkey temple with his heft.
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Sethi is a perfect Mowgli and gives a remarkable performance against the CGI animals. He’s the only human actor on screen, the animals and landscapes created by the animation teams behind the visuals in “Avatar” and “Gravity.” But Sethi makes it feel real – real running across gnarled roots, up and down trees and cliffs, into muddy ravines. He also makes the relationships real, with tenderly felt connections between Mowgli and Bagheera and Baloo, as well as his wolf mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o).
The themes and story beats hew close to “The Jungle Book” that we expect, but it’s fascinating how the technological advancements and creature design, so startlingly real, changes the story. It underlines just how different Mowgli is from his pack with his “tricks” – vines as ropes and pulley systems and buckets – that come naturally to him as a resourceful, problem-solving human. It doesn’t quite seem like he totally belongs, despite the obvious affection and respect for animals. Regardless, there are important life lessons in the jungle that anyone can take away, especially the idea that “the strength of the wolf is the pack, and the strength of the pack is the wolf.”
The Jungle Book
Rated: PG for some sequences of scary action and peril. Starring: Neel Sethi and voices of Bill Murray and Ben Kingsley. Director: Jon Favreau. Running time: 106 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21 (2D, 3D), Edwards 9 (2D, 3D), Edwards 14 (2D, 3D), Edwards 12 (2D, 3D), Majestic 18 (2D, 3D), Village Cinema (2D, 3D), Terrace Drive-In.