“The Jungle Book” is breathtaking. Created almost entirely with computers, Disney’s latest update is so immersive, it makes its lush fantasy version of the wilderness seem real enough to touch. You’ll believe a tiger can talk.
You’ll be scared of him, too, as Idris Elba’s Shere Khan is the early frontrunner for Most Terrifying Movie Villain of 2016. His brutal physicality, coupled with Elba’s smoothly threatening voice, makes it seem as if he could leap out of the screen to kill you. Especially in 3-D, you wouldn’t put it past him.
Anyone familiar with Rudyard Kipling’s story and Disney’s beloved 1967 animated version will recognize Shere Khan. He’s the vicious predator who drives young “man-cub” Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) toward a human village, after being raised by wolves and the fatherly panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley).
Along the way, Mowgli meets familiar figures like Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), simian boss King Louie (Christopher Walken) and the seductive snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson, anchoring the movie’s best scene).
Director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) and the Disney effects team pay loving attention to every detail, down to each blade of grass and twitching whisker. In fact, the animal characters are often more authentic than lone human Sethi, although it’s not really the kid’s fault. Even adult thespians can have trouble acting with co-stars who don’t exist — imagine how tough it must be for a preteen with little experience.
Sethi is at least cute and likable, so his awkward interactions with the fake environment can be overlooked.
Some of the creative decisions are tougher to comprehend. Grown-up filmmakers should know that a menacing giant ape doesn’t need a musical number, no matter how much everybody loves “I Wanna Be Like You.” He also doesn’t need to be voiced by Walken at his most mannered, eliciting giggles with every line. When King Louie finally goes on the attack, “The Jungle Book” thankfully returns to the movie it was before the swing interlude.
“The Bare Necessities” also gets a brief showcase. It doesn’t fit in well, either, but at least Baloo doesn’t try to kill any of the heroes. As voiced by Murray, he’s more of an affable slacker, who urges Mowgli to use his ingenuity, something the boy’s wolf parents (Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o) discouraged.
It’s hard to get emotionally attached to Baloo as Mowgli does, since he’s just a typical Murray character with computer-generated fur. You half expect him to start feuding with a gopher.
Although its stumbles are odd and baffling, “The Jungle Book” approaches greatness often enough to be worthwhile. Perhaps the inevitable sequel will have a more consistent tone and less reliance on nostalgia. And no jazz hands.
Read more of freelancer Loey Lockerby’s reviews at suchacritic.com.
‘The Jungle Book’
Rated PG. Time: 1:45.
3-D or not 3-D?
The 3-D is impressive but it would be visually stunning in 2-D as well.