Disney’s latest attempt to transmogrify one of their animated classics into a live-action spectacle is The Jungle Book. This production takes their 1967 Rudyard Kipling adaptation, a simple, rambling, musical story, down to its bare necessities, building it back up into a pleasant jungle adventure. In the process it loses most of the cartoony energy and all but hints of two songs. But some of what it loses in vibrant animated silliness it gains in the weight and heft of the best imitation wilderness money can buy. It’s CGI made with an eye for live-action, computer animated with a real boy running through. The amiable feature tracks along leafy green oasis and rocky cliff, swampy waterhole and cavernous ruin, getting undemanding picture book tableau out of every development. It’s high-stakes and kid-friendly, a child’s eye view of the jungle as a place where, if you believe in yourself, you’ll survive just fine with the help of your animal friends.
In this jungle-as-playground we meet Mowgli, the kid who was found abandoned as a baby and raised by a pack of wolves. He’s played by newcomer Neel Sethi, an agreeable boy who seems to enjoy scampering about the scenery and speaking to the animals who growl and howl around him. (He also doesn’t mind wearing only red shorts, the traditional garb of the Jungle Boy, from Bomba on down. Nice of the animal parents to understand the need for pants.) He’s enjoying life as a wolf, playing with pups and looking up to his canine parents (Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito). Alas, the menacing tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) knows the danger man poses and demands Mowgli be killed for the good of all jungle kind. This leads wise panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to decide the best option is taking the man cub to be safely reunited with his own kind. There’s not much to it, the characters filled in by typecasting and cultural memories, but the movie has a sturdy construction on which to build its digital sights.
What follows is a trip through beautifully fake scenery, with towering waterfalls and sun-dappled trees, swinging vines and staggering vistas. It’s as much like a jungle as a greenscreen stage in downtown L.A. can be these days. Top-notch effects work creates an often-convincing vision, fitting a movie that’s content to poke along through episodic little vignettes enjoying the company of a variety of animals. The creatures Mowgli encounters will be familiar to anyone who knows Disney’s original. Screenwriter Justin Marks makes sure to include the expected cast of characters, some voiceless (elephants, birds), others voiced capably by recognizable performers, like sneaky snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson, slithery seduction), sweet lazy bear Baloo (Bill Murray, warm and loveable), and the envious orangutan King Louie (Christopher Walken, making eerie musical use of his usual unusual punctuation). Every majestic creature – a menagerie that would barely look out of place in a motion-capture Planet of the Apes – is animated with uncanny accuracy and remarkably authentic textures, real enough to pull off the illusion, but fake enough to not scare too many kids.
Director Jon Favreau is a good fit for this sort of film. Think of his work on Christmassy Elf, sci-fi board-game trip Zathura, and kicking off the Marvel Cinematic Universe with two Iron Mans. He knows his way around bright, clean, clear popcorn imagery, bringing a fine workmanlike competence to the spectacle that works because he believes in the movie magic of his effects and has the cast and crew to pull it off. There is some real majesty to its best moments, and at its worst a sense of predetermined comfort. We know where we’re going, but the way there is reasonably entertaining. There are primal fable-like qualities to the images of an innocent boy standing next to these dangerous beasts and finding his way to be their equal. It’s not a story of man conquering the flora and fauna, but becoming a part of them, an age-old scamper-through-the-wilderness-to-find-yourself tale.
Favreau realizes the Kipling tale’s cinematic heritage as a red-blooded boy’s adventure story, eager to admire the beauty of its setting and creatures so cheerfully faked for our amusement. It may take direct inspiration from Disney’s own classic in story, character, and music cues, but it’s as indebted to the Kordas’ Technicolor 1942 version, or Stephen Sommers’ 1994 pulpier-ish iteration. It’s always about giving a man cub a fantastical place in the natural spectacle of nature, to play with danger and emerge safe and sound. Favreau concludes his Mowgli’s story with appealing lessons about standing up for what you believe in, using your talents to protect others, and being proud of becoming your best self. Though it is interesting to note where the boy ends up. This isn’t a story about emerging from the wilderness to become a man, but engineering a way to remain boyish forever. Seems a fitting message for a company that hopes we’ll keep paying to see new versions of old childhood staples.