Neel Sethi in The Jungle Book (Photo: Disney)

THE JUNGLE BOOK
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Jon Favreau
STARS Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley

Forget “The Bare Necessities”; the bare fact of the matter is that Disney’s 1967 animated hit The Jungle Book, the most famous film version of Rudyard Kipling’s stories, is the least effective of the various celluloid adaptations. Made during the studio’s mostly barren stretch between its two golden ages, the movie plays better in nostalgia-tinged memories than in the here-and-now, hampered by rudimentary animation, annoying interpretations of beloved characters, and, save for the aforementioned “The Bare Necessities,” forgettable tunes. Far better are the 1942 British production starring 18-year-old Sabu as Mowgli, the underrated 1994 take with 28-year-old Jason Scott Lee in the primary role, and, now, a new edition of The Jungle Book, featuring 12-year-old newcomer Neel Sethi as the young boy raised by wolves.

This incarnation initially spends more time than the other versions on the wolf pack, as Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) raise Mowgli alongside their cubs. But when the ferocious, man-hating tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) makes it clear that nothing will stop him from killing the boy, it’s decided that Mowgli will be taken to live with his own kind, escorted in his journey by his friend and protector, the noble panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). But the trip doesn’t go as planned, with Mowgli finding himself alone and in the clutches of the snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) before he’s rescued by the garrulous bear Baloo (Bill Murray). Yet his troubles are just getting warmed up, as he still has to contend with a seemingly crazed ape named King Louie (Christopher Walken) as well as the ever-present threat of Shere Khan.

In much the same manner as Kenneth Branagh’s enchanting Cinderella last year, director Jon Favreau and scripter Justin Marks have crafted a film that manages to pay tribute both to the original tale as well as its animated adaptation. (You would think there wouldn’t be any room in this non-musical version for “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You.” You would be wrong.) More importantly, their movie employs CGI to dazzling, seamless effect, resulting in an immersive viewing experience rather than the distancing sensation often created by motion pictures that live and die by the computer. With the exception of Mowgli, everything else is artificial, from the lush jungle surroundings to the anthropomorphic animals surrounding the “man-cub” protagonist. It’s an immaculate presentation, further buoyed by John Debney’s catchy score. (Save your money, though, by nixing the 3-D option; it adds very little.)

The voice actors are appropriately cast, even if none really stand out in the manner of, say, Ratatouille‘s Patton Oswalt or Aladdin‘s Robin Williams. Idris is menacing as Shere Khan, Johansson is an interesting choice for Kaa, and Walken (he who possesses one of the most distinctive voices in Hollywood) gives us a Louie who almost belongs in a live-action gangster or horror flick. As for Murray, he’s an expected scene-stealer as Baloo, and I’m all for more Jungle Book pictures if it prevents him from lending his vocals to any more infernal Garfield atrocities.

 

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