In the wrong hands, the 2016 version of “The Jungle Book” could have played like the longest Super Bowl commercial in history, what with all those realistic-looking animals conversing with a little boy.
Come on. Unless you’re the littlest of little kids, there’s something a bit goofy about wolves and a tiger and a panther and a bear and dozens of other creatures chatting it up in British or American accents, and then suddenly reverting to growls and howls and roars — but thanks to director Jon Favreau’s visionary guidance and some of the most impressive blends of live-action and CGI we’ve yet seen, “The Jungle Book” is a beautifully rendered, visually arresting take on Rudyard Kipling’s oft-filmed tales.
Every drop of rain, every cracking tree branch, every swaying tree and (most impressively) every jungle creature in the film looks amazingly real — and yet this entire movie was filmed in a studio in downtown Los Angeles. That’s a jaw-dropper right there.
The only character in “The Jungle Book” who is NOT a creation of special-effects movie magic is the boy-cub Mowgli, who is played by Neel Sethi, an actual human child who is not the most subtle of young actors but does a pretty fair job of “interacting” with co-stars that exist only in CGI form and via voice-overs from a roster of big-name stars.
Sir Ben Kingsley provides narration and life lessons as the black panther Bagheera, who found the orphaned Mowgli deep in the jungle when Mowgli was just a toddler cub and united the boy with a pack of wolves, including the stern but kind father figure Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and the loving mother figure Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o.)
When the ferocious and fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) literally sniffs out the boy-cub, he announces to the animal kingdom he WILL one day kill the boy. Rather than put his wolf family at risk, Mowgli decides it’s time for him to leave the jungle and join a village of humans — and off we go with Mowgli on a series of adventures that will be familiar to anyone who has read Kipling or has seen any of “The Jungle Book” movies, most notably the 1967 Disney box office smash.
Scarlett Johansson is a hissing, seductive, hypnotic Kaa, a snake in every sense of the word. Her “Lost in Translation” pal Bill Murray gets most of the big laughs in the film as Baloo, the big ol’ bear who cons Mowgli into helping him store up the honey supply, but eventually becomes as loyal a friend as a boy-cub in the jungle could ever hope to know.
It’s a bittersweet moment to hear the voice of Garry Shandling providing additional comic relief as Ikki, a porcupine that delights in every rock and twig he finds.
And then there’s Christopher Walken doing his Christopher Walken thing as King Louie, the grotesque and oversized orangutan who “welcomes” Mowgli into his dark and forbidding lair with all the oily menace of Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.” Walken’s rendition of “I Wan’na Be Like You,” made famous by Louis Prima in the 1967 film, might be amusing to adults (I found it a bit tedious) but will most likely have children fidgeting with their 3-D glasses, waiting for the story to get moving again.
(Murray sings another song from the 1967 film, “The Bare Necessities.” I realize generations of fans of that movie love those tunes, but I didn’t, and I don’t. If both musical numbers were excised from the film, I don’t think “The Jungle Book” would have missed a beat, so to speak. In fact it might have made for a more exhilarating, streamlined adventure.)
There are some genuinely scary moments, e.g., when Shere Khan puts a sudden and shocking end to a beloved character. The violence in the film is mostly implied, but you might want to think twice before taking the very young. You don’t want to give a 5-year-old 3-D nightmares, do ya?
It’s amazing how CGI just keeps getting better and better. Just four years ago, the Bengal tiger in “Life of Pi” was a jaw-dropping creation. In “The Jungle Book,” the tiger, the bear, the wolves and hundreds of other animals are astonishingly original creations — and they seem to have been plucked from an actual jungle, albeit a jungle where bears and elephants and mice and water buffalo and turtles and panthers and friggin’ peacocks all share the same turf.
Quite the ride.
Disney presents a film directed by Jon Favreau and written by Justin Marks. Running time: 106 minutes. Rated PG (for some sequences of scary
action and peril). Opens Friday at local theaters.