Recent boardroom drama aside, no major studio in Hollywood has been firing on all cylinders quite like Disney lately. In addition to the creative resurrection of Star Wars, the seemingly unstoppable commercial might of the Marvel films, and the by-now taken-for-granted genius of Pixar, the Mouse House has less noisily been rummaging around in its celluloid closet and giving some of its more mothball-scented animated classics up-to-the-minute live-action makeovers. Last year, director Kenneth Branagh splashed a fresh coat of candy-colored paint onto Cinderella (with a huge assist from Cate Blanchett’s venomous wicked stepmother). Now, it’s The Jungle Book’s turn in the rotation – and, whodathunkit, it turns out to be one of the biggest surprises of 2016.
A faithful, albeit more mature reboot of Disney’s animated 1967 classic (well, “classic” actually seems too charitable of a word when measured against Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Snow White…let’s call it a “second-tier classic”), The Jungle Book stars the endearing 12-year-old Neel Sethi as Mowgli, an irrepressibly chatty “man-cub” who was raised in the wild by a pack of wolves led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) after a fatherly black panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) found him as an abandoned toddler. Mowgli is reared according to the communal code of the wolfpack and lives in jungle harmony until a snarling, vengeful tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba, all East London-accented menace), comes looking for him. It turns out that Shere Khan was burned and scarred by the “red flower” (the animals’ term for fire) once wielded by Mowgli’s father. He wants the boy handed over as tooth-for-a-tooth payback, otherwise all the jungle critters will get a dark tutorial about the circle of life pronto.
In order to protect the boy from the villainous Shere Khan, Bagheera decides to return him to his own people. But along the way things go awry (as they do). Mowgli gets caught in the chest-crushing embrace of a giant snake named Kaa (Scarlett Johansson, seductively slithery), he falls in with a lazy, honey-loving, con-artist bear, Baloo (Bill Murray at his wry, what-me-worry comic-relief best), and runs afoul of a tyrannical Kong-sized ape named Louie (Christopher Walken channeling both Don Corleone and Jabba the Hutt). There’s also the late Garry Shandling lending his frantic pipes to a neurotic porcupine. And they’re all perfect – not just in their voices, but also in the way that what’s coming out of their mouths syncs up with the way their mouths move. It’s the first talking-animal movie I’ve seen where CGI seamlessly bridges the uncanny gap between fantasy and reality. It’s also one of the few 3-D movies that actually benefits from being in 3-D.
Directed by Iron Man’s Jon Favreau, The Jungle Book is a tender and rollicking fable that manages to touch on some grown-up themes about man’s destructive power and the loss of youthful innocence without losing sight that it’s first and foremost a gee-whiz kids adventure – though definitely one that’s a bit too scary and intense for younger kids. My only beef with the film – and it’s a minor one – is that it felt the need to be too faithful to its Disney predecessor. In particular, a pair of musical numbers (Baloo’s “Bear Necessities” and Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You”) that seem to come out of nowhere and stop the film’s momentum on a dime. They’re fine, but they feel like they were shoe-horned into the film for soundtrack licensing purposes, or as a sop to old-school mom-and-dad Jungle Book fans in the theater. Favreau’s Jungle Book is such a wall-to-wall pleasure, his song-and-dance interludes are an unnecessary distraction. With a movie this great and this dazzling, the last thing you need to do is break out the jazz-hands and turn it into the Country Bear Jamboree. A-