The Jungle Book

Disney's 1967 animated feature The Jungle Book isn't a particularly faithful adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling book it's based on, but it remains the most thoroughly entertaining big-screen version of the tale (though we should certainly offer a respectful tip of the hat to Zoltan Korda's 1942 adaptation). It's also strikingly different from Disney's other early animated films: while most classic Disney flicks aim for a certain timelessness, The Jungle Book is very much a product of its era. It's filled to the brim with jazz club slang, swinging tunes and charmingly dated pop culture references (some key supporting characters are based on the Beatles).

Disney's new live-action version of The Jungle Book (based on the animated film, which means it strays even further from the Kipling book) is very much a product of its era, too. The loose, casual animated film has been replaced by a grandiose CGI spectacle that aims for moments of thunderous drama. The new approach works surprisingly well: director Jon Favreau has given us one of those uncommon kids movies that has a real sense of danger. Indeed, despite the PG rating, the film has a greater sense of dramatic weight than the bulk of modern blockbusters.

The basic outline of the story is more or less the same as the one offered by the animated film, though Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks make a handful of thoughtful additions, subtractions and embellishments. Young Mowgli (Neel Sethi) has lived in the jungle his entire life, and has been raised by a pack of wolves as one of their own. He has also benefitted immensely from the mentorship of the wise panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley, Hugo), who has given the boy many valuable lessons on surviving in the jungle. However, when a ruthless tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba, The Wire) learns of Mowgli's existence and vows to eliminate him, the wolf pack and Bagheera determine that the best course of action is to send Mowgli off to the “man village” and let him live among his own kind. Naturally, the mission doesn't quite go according to plan, and Mowgli ends up in the company of Baloo (Bill Murray, Lost in Translation), a slothful bear who is eager to take advantage of Mowgli's unique honey-gathering abilities.

Favreau has clearly put a good deal of thought into how to update these characters, making a number of small-but-smart alterations that mostly work quite well. For instance, Baloo and Bagheera are still a study in contrasts – one a carefree, fun-loving layabout, the other a mature, serious-minded creature – but Baloo is a bit more nakedly self-serving in this version (though no less lovable), while Bagheera spends less time complaining then he did in the previous version (exasperated rants have largely been replaced with quiet sighs or discontented growls). Mowgli, too, is a tad less bratty in this version, with more complicated motivations for making the decisions he makes. Meanwhile, Akeela (Giancarlo Esposito, Breaking Bad) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave) – Mowgli's wolf parents – have been given significantly expanded parts, with the latter getting some particularly affecting moments.

Meanwhile, the villains have been made a bit more sinister. Shere Khan was certainly a savage beast in the animated feature, but he carried himself with the air of a Bond villain, taking immense pleasure in violence. The film's take on the character smiles less and snarls more (Elba's voice work is effectively bitter), and his hatred for Mowgli is rooted in a violent moment from his past. King Louie (Christopher Walken, Catch Me If You Can) is a considerably more imposing figure this time around, depicted as a silver-tongued mobster who rules his kingdom with an iron fist. Surprisingly, the deceptive Kaa (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin) has a reduced role, showing up for a single hallucinatory scene and then departing.

Every year or two, we get a blockbuster that marks a new high point the realm of visual effects, and The Jungle Book certainly belongs on that list of standard-setting films. The CG animals on display are nothing short of astonishing, and it's fascinating to observe the way the filmmakers have given the character's faces so much emotional nuance without making them seem too human. It's easily the most impressive thing Favreau has done on a technical level, and he seems to have stepped up his game a notch or two as an action filmmaker (admittedly, the fact that so much of what we're seeing is animated might make the “choreography” a bit easier to manage, but that doesn't diminish the excitement of sequences like Mowgli's frantic attempt to outrun Shere Khan or the fiery climax).

The moments in the film that don't work are, predictably enough, the moments in which the film awkwardly attempts to incorporate certain beloved moments from the animated feature. “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” are great songs, and they rank as joyful high points of the original feature. In this version of the story, the chipper, jazzy tunes feel tonally out-of-sync with everything else the movie is doing. Far more effective is John Debney's terrific score, which offers some tremendous new themes (particularly a gorgeous, Goldsmith-esque central melody) and makes sparing but clever use of instantly recognizable motifs from the original soundtrack (hearing “Trust in Me” used in a bombastic action cue was a particular delight).

The film's other noteworthy liability is that it struggles to surprise the audience: attentive viewers will be three or four steps ahead of the story at all times, and not just because they've seen the animated version. This is partially due to the fact that some of Favreau's foreshadowing is a little too heavy-handed, and partially because a lot of the storytelling beats are fairly conventional. When Bagheera decides to hide a certain piece of information from Mowgli in an attempt to prevent the kid from making a foolish decision, we know that A) Mowgli is going to find out, B) Mowgli will then go ahead and make the foolish decision anyway and C) Bagheera and Mowgli will then patch things up during a moment of crisis. Most of Favreau's storytelling decisions are technically justifiable – you feel that the characters would indeed make the decisions they make – but that doesn't prevent them from feeling predictable.

Still, I'm impressed by the way the film simultaneously aims for a fairly young audience and refuses to condescend to that audience. Though the moments of violence in the film are fairly muted (there's only a little blood on display), they make a real impact. When a character is killed, it isn't an emotionally manipulative fake-out (I'm looking at you, Marvel movies), but a genuine moment designed to illustrate how harsh the jungle can be. Though there are moments of goofy comic relief here and there, this is the sort of sincere, old-fashioned storytelling that too few family movies deliver these days. It doesn't quite match the swoon-inducing cinematic highs of Kenneth Branagh's gorgeous reworking of Cinderella, but like that movie, it does an surprisingly impressive job of justifying its own existence.

The Jungle Book

Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Year: 2016