As my wife said when we were leaving The Jungle Book, "That was a lot better than I was expecting it to be."
She's right. Jon Favreau's entry into Disney's campaign of remaking its classic animation titles as CGI-heavy live action films is a solid little adventure story starring talking animals. Mowgli (Neel Sethi, in his feature debut) is one of only two real humans onscreen. His co-stars are a menagerie of CGI animals that constitutes the film's biggest achievement.The computer-generated animation and backgrounds on display here are astonishing. The animators get all of the little things right, like the ripple of a wolf's fur or the quiver of a porcupine's quills, making this one of the visually best CGI-driven films since Avatar.
We meet Mowgli, the foundling raised by his wolf mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o), as he's trying to run with the pack. Try as he might, he can't keep up, but alpha wolf Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) encourages him to keep trying. A drought brings all the animals of the jungle together in a water truce, where they promise not to eat each other while gathered around the last pond of drinkable water. It's here that Shere Khan (Idris Elba) first sees Mowgli. Shere Khan carries scars inflicted by a human wielding the "red flower" of fire, and Mowgli becomes the focus of his grudge. The angry tiger threatens the wolf pack if they don't turn over Mowgli, forcing the boy on a dangerous jungle sojourn with Bagheera (Ben Kinglsey), the black panther, as his guide. His ultimate goal is to make it to the human village, but Mowgli is unsure if he really wants to go, leaving him trapped between worlds.
- Wolf boy — Neel Sethi as Mowgli.
The voice casts are all quite good, led by America's spirit animal Bill Murray as jovial slacker bear Baloo, and including Scarlett Johansson as the hypnotic python Kaa and the recently departed Garry Shandling as Ikki the porcupine. Favreau and company devise a series of cleanly executed set pieces to put Mowgli in peril as he navigates through the dangerous jungle.
Favreau's Jungle Book is visually lush and innovative, but you know what else was visually lush? The 1967 animated adaptation of The Jungle Book, which was the last film Walt Disney worked on before his death in 1967. That version sanded some of the rough edges off of Rudyard Kipling's colonialist source material and imbibed the characters with some of the best songs in the Disney canon. Orangutan King Louie, played in 1967 by Louis Prima, flirted with racial caricature, but his version of "I Wanna Be Like You" is a heavy-bopping freight train of a song. Favreau turns the colonialist overtones way down by casting Christopher Walken as King Louie and referencing Brando's performance in Apocalypse Now. Walken delivers a fine take on the song, but not fine enough to erase the memory of the original. Along with "Bear Necessities," it's one of only two songs to make it into this version, and that's the problem in a nutshell. Disney wants to make some kind of slightly gritty reboot of The Jungle Book that will appeal to the hypothetical kids today, but also channel the spirit of the original, but in trying to thread the needle, Favreau takes a middle path that fully satisfies on neither level. The Jungle Book is not quite as inessential as last year's Cinderella, but ultimately it still fails to justify its own existence.