“What’s a song?” asks the young man-cub Mowgli to his newfound pal Baloo about halfway through Disney’s re-imagining of “The Jungle Book,” directed by the affable and talented Jon Favreau (“Iron Man,” “Zathura,” “Chef”) and hitting theaters this week. We tend to think of the 1967 Walt Disney animated feature as a musical, and this new version has been promoted as a straight adventure, although the two most popular and instantly-recognizable songs from the former have been wedged into Favreau’s movie almost as though it would be impossible to proceed without them.
I mention this because 2016’s “The Jungle Book,” despite its vast high-tech achievements and frequently gorgeous visuals, sometimes has trouble escaping the long shadow of its predecessor.
This remake has been called a “live-action” one, which is something of a misnomer. It’s an almost entirely CGI-animated movie with some (one, most notably) live-action elements, and Favreau has spoken at great length about the digital advancements that led to its creation. I can say one thing for absolute certain: all of the many long hours spent fine-tuning the visuals have been undeniably worth it: “The Jungle Book” is hands-down one of the most technologically impressive movies ever made.
Incorporating near-photorealism and down-to-the-pixel precision into every frame, “The Jungle Book” convincingly transports the viewer to another world—not the distant planet of Pandora from “Avatar” or the fantasy realm Middle Earth from “Lord of the Rings”—but the titular jungle in central India, where Mowgli was orphaned in a cave after his father’s encounter with the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba.) The otherworldly thing about this particular jungle is that many of the animals can speak to and understand Mowgli, and of course, Mowgli talks back.
Adopted by a noble wolf pack as an infant, Mowgli grows up learning the laws of the wild, but one fateful day, on the verge of adulthood, he must strike out on his own to evade the still-vengeful Shere Khan and make his way back to the cities of man. Along the way he encounters several new friends and enemies, and eventually comes to understand the true meaning of family and the importance of confronting one’s own demons.
It’s a very familiar story, of course, and screenwriter Justin Marks has borrowed heavily from both the original Disney movie and the Rudyard Kipling stories on which it was based. Favreau, too, leans heavily on the audience’s foreknowledge of the various source materials: there are a handful of iconic shots lifted directly (and obviously intentionally) from the 1967 film. He also manages to work in a few visual flourishes of his own: a unique jungle-inspired transition from the Walt Disney logo at the top of the movie and an entrancingly fake time-lapse sequence (also near the beginning) are two memorable standouts.
The casting is excellent, and special attention must be payed to newcomer Neel Sethi, who is the only actor in the movie to actually appear on-screen for any considerable length of time. From a performance standpoint, the movie rests on his shoulders, and he delivers. His Mowgli is at once friendly and eager, argumentative when things don’t go his way, resourceful yet overconfident at first, until his character completes his arc and becomes the man-cub the jungle needs, just in time for the movie’s climax.
Filling out the voice cast are Sir Ben Kingsley as the stately panther Bagheera (Mowgli’s mentor and father figure on his journey,) the always-enjoyable Bill Murray as the freeloading but loyal bear Baloo, and Lupita Nyong’o as Mowgli’s adoptive wolf mother Raksha. Christopher Walken even turns in a genuinely terrifying performance as King Louie, retrofitted from the non-Indian-native Orangutan of the 60s Disney film to the enormous and still-anachronistically extinct species Gigantopithecus. The only ill-fitting vocal performance belongs to Scarlett Johansson, whose sultry tones worked better as the self-aware computer system in Spike Jonze’s “Her” than here as the devious python Kaa.
When it’s operating at its best, “The Jungle Book” recalls the tone of dark mid-to-late 20th century animated children’s films like “Watership Down” or Rankin and Bass’s 1977 take on “The Hobbit.” Unfortunately, story-wise much of the remainder of the running time feels like a retread, a mesmerizing technical experiment using already-beloved tales and characters as its groundwork, rather than an actual movie.
Still, there’s a lot to like here: again, the visuals are nothing short of amazing and it would be worth seeing for the cast alone. But my absolute favorite part was the inventive end credits sequence: a musical storybook come to life, featuring a lively, tongue-in-cheek denouement set to Walken’s rendition of the ever-catchy “I Wanna Be Like You.” On top of all that, the movie’s creators have snuck in a subplot about Bagheera’s reluctance to Mowgli’s use of gimmicks and gadgetry to accomplish his goals. I interpreted that as a clever nod to Favreau’s own hesitance to embrace digital cinema and 3D, and like the meta-narrative of “Chef” before it, it provides a certain fascinating insight to what goes through the mind of a big-budget Hollywood filmmaker, especially when tasked with updating a classic.
“The Jungle Book” opens in theaters nationwide this Friday, April 15th.
All images Copyright 2016 Disney.