Director Jon Favreau updates Rudyard Kipling’s classic story The Jungle Book, already a Disney animated favorite from 1967, by looking to Planet Earth. The animals rendered in dazzling 3-D are so realistic that you feel as if you’re watching National Geographic. Favreau even places his camera in shots and angles that seem reminiscent of nature programs.
That’s why it’s so jarring when Ben Kingsley’s voice pops out of the mouth of a sleek panther, Bagheera, chatting amiably with man cub Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi). The realistic character designs – you can see Bagheera’s fuzzy fur perfectly – highlight the dissonance between Mowgli and his adopted wild animal family, the stark gulf between them. It offers a different feel to the story, which is otherwise faithful to the source material and the original Disney film.
If you’re not familiar with The Jungle Book, it’s about Mowgli, a boy rescued by Bagheera, raised by wolves and stalked out of his home by Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a tiger with a chip on his shoulder about men. Mowgli has to leave the pack and, as he sets off on his own, befriends the affable bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and tangles with King Louie the Orangutan (Christopher Walken). It’s a story about relying on oneself and others, and learning to stand up to, rather than run away from, your fears.
The draw here is the incredible visual design, though Favreau has amassed a stellar cast of voice actors to play these beloved characters. Scarlett Johansson has a memorable few minutes as the seductive python Kaa. Murray seems born to be Baloo and even sings The Bare Necessities, while Walken’s take on King Louie and his number I Wanna Be Like You is unexpectedly great. Louie is designed as a great hulking beast, making him that much more of a power and a threat, crumbling the entire monkey temple with his heft.
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Sethi is a perfect Mowgli and gives a remarkable performance against the CGI animals. He’s the only human on screen; the animals and landscapes were created by the animation teams behind Avatar and Gravity. But Sethi makes it feel real – running across gnarled roots, up and down trees and cliffs, into muddy ravines. He also makes the relationships real, with tenderly felt connections between Mowgli and Bagheera and Baloo, as well as his wolf mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o).
The story hews closely to The Jungle Book, but it’s fascinating how the technological advancements and creature design, so startlingly real, change the story. It underlines just how different Mowgli is from his pack with his “tricks” – vines as ropes and pulley systems and buckets – that come naturally to him as a resourceful human. It doesn’t seem like he belongs, despite his affection and respect for animals. Regardless, there are important life lessons in the jungle that anyone can take away, especially the idea that “the strength of the wolf is the pack, and the strength of the pack is the wolf.”
‘The Jungle Book’
Rated PG for some sequences of scary action and peril. 1:45. 2D only: Frankfort. 2D and 3D: Fayette Mall, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester, Woodhill.