‘The Jungle Book’
Director: Jon Favreau
Stars: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray (voice)
3 (out of 5) Globes
Once upon a time, Disney would reissue their animated classics to theaters. It was partly to make more money, and partly to indoctrinate another generation of children. Home video killed that racket, so they dreamt up another one: Now they remake their oldies as live-action newbs. Disney’s updates of “Cinderella” and, now, “The Jungle Book” don’t mess much with earlier success; they just do the originals with real actors, following they story beats to a T. If anything they excise some of the more whimsical bits (songs, goofy talking animal action) while making them only a whiff darker.
It would be easy to tag these two redos as powerfully inessential if they weren’t, as it happens, powerfully lovely. Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella” was a lush fever dream. Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” pairs first-rate CGI with deep feeling. There’s no reason for either to exist, which hasn’t stopped the directors from giving their all. They feel at once moldy and just fresh enough, and not only because of their state-of-the-art effects. Whatever cynicism birthed them gets stamped down by the good vibes.
Anyone with even a faint memory of Disney’s 1967 take on the Rudyard Kipling — or the dozen-or-so other adaptations, including the 1942 classic, plus an anime and one from Russia — barely needs to pay attention to the plot. Mowgli (a charming and believably boyish Neel Sethi), an orphan raised by talking critters, has to escape the clutches of a human-hating tiger named Shere Khan. Apart from the CGI, the one major facelift involves amplifying Khan’s terror. It’s not just that he’s voiced by Idris Elba; Khan has a nasty scar and a dead eye, given to him by a man who instilled in him a deep and singleminded prejudice against humans.
This isn’t, though, a mere dark version of a family favorite. This occasional heaviness of this “Jungle Book” is there to add gravity to a spectacular that might otherwise seem like a checklist of favorite parts redone. There’s Mowgli’s run-in with a snake (Scarlett Johansson), him singing “The Bear Necessities” with new bear bro Baloo (Bill Murray), his stint with mighty King Louie (Christopher Walken) who wants to be human. Even the latter is given a minor spin. Louie isn’t just a charmingly buffoonish Louis Armstrong homage; he’s an orangutan colossus who sings “I Wan’na Be Like You” while tearing through a massive stone temple — a titan who dwarfs our sprinting young star while giving a deathless Disney tune a more sinister edge.
Elsewhere “The Jungle Book” is warm and, at times, bittersweet. Bill Murray doesn’t just do a Bill Murray Baloo; he makes him a touching screw-up afraid to fail his new pal. The many other animals who’ve helped raise Mowgli — Ben Kingsley’s panther Bagheera, Lupita Nyong’o’s wolf Raksha — all feel like flesh-and-blood characters. That’s partly due to the CGI. We’re at a point where we can never tell when tech is truly next level, and a film with realistic animal fur hasn’t been surprising since “Monsters Inc.” 15 years ago. (Non-distracting talking animals, meanwhile, have been a staple since “Babe” back in 1995.) But there seems something uncanny about the effects, mostly because they seem organic to story and character. They look real and, more importantly, they feel real.
Favreau is a director who sometimes jostles between stripped-down and handmade (“Zathura,” “Iron Man”) and over-packed and disorganized (“Iron Man 2,” “Cowboys & Aliens”). He returns from the palette-cleanser that was “Chef” with a clear head. Sometimes his head seems too clear; sometimes one may want his latest to go off in more (or any) eccentric directions. “The Jungle Book” doesn’t try to be anything more than a well-known story retold simply, but we’re reminded even a painfully familiar tale can, when done right, still bring the magic.