Rave all you like about the computer-generated imagery, the gorgeous 3D jungle flora and fauna of Disney’s latest version of “The Jungle Book.”
You will forget about all that technology within minutes of the opening credits. The interface between a real world captured in photographs, with a real boy in it, and digital renderings of the animals and setting the boy interacts with is that perfect.
This is a movie of weight and heart, leaning heavily on Rudyard Kipling but tugging at our memories of Disney’s 1967 cartoon concocted from Kipling’s stories of the man cub, Mowgli. The animals and the man cub are scarred, dirty, and their struggles reek of life and death consequences.
Jon Favreau’s film harks back to an era when kids’ movies didn’t baby them, but showed them violence, ethical dilemmas, fear and loss. He’s given us a “law of the jungle” tale of human responsibility at the “top of the food chain,” and done it with warmth and humor.
Mowgli, played with empathy and care to make sure his eyes make contact with digital animals that aren’t there by young Neel Sethi, has grown up with wolves. But his mentor, the panther Bagheera (the voice of Ben Kingsley) knows that the kid needs a tribe of his own.
His “tricks” and cunning upset the balance of nature in the jungle. This orphan must return to the Man Village.
The embittered tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba, menacing as all get-out) wants revenge on the species that blinded him in one eye. He wants to kill the man-cub. So the boy’s wolf family, Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) send him off with the panther to live among men.
Shere Khan pursues him, the kid is separated from Bagheera, meets Kaa the Snake (Scarlett Johansson), Baloo the Bear (Bill Murray) and King Louis of the Apes (Christopher Walken). And he is tested by the jungle and starts to come of age in the process.
Generations grew up on “The Disney Version” of this story, complete with music by Disney’s house-composers, The Sherman Brothers (and others). There are literally no surprises in the Justin Marks script. We even revisit the earlier film’s most famous songs.
The animals, many of whom (but not all) talk, fear Man and his “red flower” (fire). Mowgli must figure out where he belongs, and how to make that work, on his terms.
But a word is in order about the stunning, conversational quality of the voice-acting. Kingsley doesn’t talk “at” the kid, nor do the sexy-temptress Johansson or the offhanded goofball Murray.
“You have never been a more endangered species than you are right now,” Baloo warns a gaggle of pesky critters interfering with his “training” the kid in “The Bare Necessities.”
Listen as the late Garry Shandling (as a porcupine) lands one last one-liner.
Favreau, topping his work in the flip, funny and weighty “Iron Man,” tosses in extreme closeups of menace, landslides and stampedes and a vivid digital version of “When Tigers Attack.”
But again, the effects get lost in the story and the — Dare we say it? –performances. This is top drawer children’s entertainment, smart and challenging, sentimental and sweet.
And it’s as good an excuse as any to pop the musical version it is almost (but not quite) a remake of into the DVD player the minute you and the kids get home. This “Jungle Book” could give remakes a good name.
MPAA Rating:PG for some sequences of scary action and peril
Cast: Neel Sethi, with the voices of Sir Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong’o, Giancarlo Esposito, Garry Shandling
Credits: Directed by Jon Favreau, script by Justin Marks, based on the Rudyard Kipling books and the 1967 Disney musical. A Walt Disney release.