Welcome to the Jungle: Favreau pulls off talking animals in lush “Jungle Book”

The Jungle Book (2016)
111 min., rated PG.

Disney keeps returning to “The Jungle Book,” Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 compendium of stories about the young man-cub in the jungle, what with the classic 1967 cartoon, a much-belated 2002 sequel and a 1994 live-action revisionist take that was diverting as an “Indiana Jones”-esque entertainment. Technically accomplished and wonderfully enchanting, director John Favreau’s live-action/mostly-CGI iteration isn’t so much a reimagining or reinvention with any attempts to be hip or post-modern. Rather, it is exactly what Kipling might have imagined for a straightforward but quintessential adaptation with a healthy budget and advancements in technology without losing the story’s heart and soul. 

Plucky man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) tries learning the ways of the pack, being raised by mother wolf Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) with her pups in a pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). During the dry season when all the animals in the Indian jungle gather at the Peace Rock to drink the water, Mowgli is singled out by Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), whose scars are proof that man is dangerous to the jungle and not welcome. He issues a warning to the wolf pack that the man-cub better be gone or his life will be taken. When Mowgli decides to leave the jungle for the safety of his family, loyal black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) agrees to look after him and be his guide to the man village where the dreaded “red flower” (fire) exists. But first, along the way, Mowgli nearly becomes the prey to snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), befriends lazy bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and runs afoul of gigantopithecus King Louie (Christopher Walken). 

Director Jon Favreau (2014’s “Chef”) and screenwriter Justin Marks (quite the rebound from 2009’s “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li”) have moved away from the goofier antics of the ’67 cartoon but hold on to the warmth. Timeless in feel and grand in production, “The Jungle Book” is also visually gorgeous without sacrificing the story’s vital emotional component. Advancing the ground that “Avatar” and “Life of Pi” have already laid, the visual effects of the flora and fauna are practically a milestone, lushly rendered in a world that looks tactile and vibrant and immersive. Only does the revisiting of iconic songs, such as Baloo’s good-life song “The Bare Necessities” and King Louie’s swinging anthem “I Wan’na Be Like You,” come off a bit tentative but more so in retrospect than in the moment. The songs are still catchy as when they were first heard, and the separate performances of Bill Murray and Christopher Walken, respectively, have more of a casual shagginess than any signs of auto-tuned slickness. Even better, though, is a delightful reprisal of the songs in the film’s end credits as the characters pop up in little scene dioramas of a page-flipping storybook. 

12-year-old newcomer Neel Sethi shows traces of child-actor precociousness as Mowgli, but overcomes that quickly when he’s more than up to the task of selling the physical and emotional demands of a young boy who’s trying to find his place in the jungle. Sethi, mind you, virtually acts opposite empty space and couldn’t look more right for the part. Then there’s the impeccable voice cast, which somehow isn’t that distracting in a mere name-value sort of way that takes you out of the story. Ben Kingsley brings a no-nonsense wisdom and gravitas to Bagheera. Voiced by Bill Murray, Baloo is as lovable as his animated counterpart. Idris Elba cuts an imposing royal terror out of Shere Khan, and Christopher Walken’s distinct staccato makes the papaya-eating orangutan King Louie both menacing and amusing. Lupita Nyong’o also provides some of the film’s most moving moments on account of the maternal warmth and compassion in her voice in portraying Mowgli’s adoptive parent Raksha. Mowgli’s encounter with hissable python Kaa is disappointingly brief, but Scarlett Johansson makes her moment count, her breathy voice perfection for the animal’s seductive nature. 

Without many new wrinkles, “The Jungle Book” feels old-fashioned but alive with actual urgency and stakes. For a fable that’s far more adult than it is cartoonish, there is a fair amount of danger here—even the villainous Shere Khan meets an end that recalls Hans Gruber’s in “Die Hard”—that will scar children. An ambush by Shere Khan in the high grass is intense and rousing, as is Mowgli’s escape during a stampede of buffalo and a chase through King Louie’s monkey temple. “The Jungle Book” is such a vivid, thrilling adventure that it is astounding the film’s principal photography took place entirely in L.A. sound stages. The animators have outdone themselves, doing photorealistic work that makes the viewer forget he or she is really watching computer creations voiced by actors in voice booths, which is no small feat. It’s almost a miracle, let alone a welcome surprise, that there is still a poignancy to retelling this story.