It’s impossible not to be impressed by the technical wizardry of Disney’s new “live action” version of “The Jungle Book,” a sort-of remake of the studio’s 1967 “silver age” animated feature that retains a couple of the earlier picture’s songs. The “live action” tag has to be qualified because although Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, is a flesh-and-blood boy (and there are a few other shots of actual humans), all the talking animals are computer-generated (and beautifully so). The amazingly detailed backgrounds are also digital confections. So in a very real sense this is largely an animated film, too. Still, whatever category you slot it into, especially in IMAX 3D this is a breathtaking visual feast, even if the images in the concluding confrontation in a forest ablaze get a bit muddy at times (fire is notoriously hard to control, even on computers).
Otherwise, however, Jon Favreau’s “Book” is a pretty conventional if consistently engaging boy’s adventure story, one very loosely connected with Kipling’s original stories and simplified even from the 1967 picture. Mowgli is orphaned as a toddler when his father is killed in the wilderness by the tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba), whose face is scarred by fire (which the animals refer to as “the red flower”) in the process. The child is found by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), who takes him to be raised by the wolf pack headed by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). Raised with her biological cubs by Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), Mowgli becomes the rare man-cub who lags behind his brothers in physical prowess but is cleverer than most animals in other, distinctly human ways.
Mowgli’s idyllic existence is threatened, however, when a drought brings all the animals together at the sole watering hole and Shere Khan spies him. He demands that the wolves turn the cub over to him, obviously intending him no good. That results in a standoff, but Bagheera decides that Mowgli must be returned to his own kind for his own safety, and the two begin the journey to “civilization.” But Shere Khan intervenes, leaving Mowgli alone to continue his trek. It’s along the way that he will encounter first the dangerously hypnotic python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and good-natured if rather unscrupulous bear Baloo (Bill Murray), who forms a bond with the lad after initially taking advantage of him.
But Mowgli’s adventures are not yet over. Kidnapped by monkeys, he’s taken to the palace compound of their king, the huge orangutan Louie (Christopher Walken), who demands the secret of fire. Fortunately Bagheera and Baloo come to his rescue, but when Mowgli insists on returning to his pack, now under the thumb of the vengeful tiger, a showdown is inevitable—and the “red flower” will be an important part of it.
This “Jungle Book” obviously has more in common with the 1967 Disney version than with Kipling, but that’s doubtlessly what audiences are expecting—and a complete do-over would have probably met with scorn. In one respect the dependence might go too far. Murray gets to sing a bit of “The Bare Necessities,” and Walken delivers “I Wanna Be Like You,” the only two tunes retained from the original. Both do decent enough jobs with them, but the musical numbers seem out of place in this context. It would have been preferable either to turn the film into a full-fledged musical, or drop the songs altogether—with the latter the better option.
There are other flaws, all—happily—of the non-fatal variety. As already mentioned, the visuals get a bit murky in the last act’s forest fire, as Mowgli is pursued by Shere Khan. And while Sethi is an agreeable kid, he lacks the last ounce of charisma that would mark a perfect Mowgli. On the other hand, the various voiceover stars are exceptional, with Kingsley’s authoritative growl nicely matched with Murray’s comic warble. Elba is silkily malevolent, and Walken is fun, though one can question his “Godfather”-like intonations. One can also appreciate the contribution of the late Garry Shandling, who brings his querulous tones to Ikki, the nervous porcupine who claims everything in his path.
Overall, this “Jungle Book” is an exciting ride for both children and adults, though a few of the moments of Mowgli and some of the animals in peril might be a bit too scary for the smallest kids. Kipling’s stories have, of course, furnished the basis for innumerable adaptations—movies both live-action and animated, television shows, Broadway musicals, operas and ballets (there could even be a video game out there, as far as I know)—and there will doubtless be many more, virtually all (like this newest effort) not terribly faithful to the source. It’s testimony to the quality of this one that it’s among the best of a very large and competitive lot.