In continuing its recent string of live-action remakes and reboots, Disney has resurrected Rudyard Kipling's classic tales of Mowgli the man-cub and his jungle friends for the umpteenth time. To those of you who interpreted that sentence cynically, fear not, because this is one of the few remakes that actually works. While some of the studio's previous attempts, such as "Alice in Wonderland," pandered only to younger viewers, "The Jungle Book" is acutely aware of the many nostalgics who grew up watching the 1967 animated classic, balancing the beloved narrative beats of the original with the heftier undertones of this new reimagining. Jon Favreau's handling of the material is often staggering, as he utilizes photorealistic visual effects to their fullest potential while staying true to the heart of Kipling's stories. It has but a few tiny missteps when it comes to blending depth, levity and a few musical interludes, but "The Jungle Book" is confident in its effort to please viewers of all ages.
Deep in the Indian jungle, a man-cub named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) lives with a pack wolves, led by the alpha-male Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and mothered by Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o). When the malevolent Bengal tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), vows to kill the man-cub, Mowgli leaves the pack with his guardian, black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), in order to be reunited with his own kind. The two are eventually separated and, while on his own, Mowgli encounters the seductive python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the towering gigantopithecus King Louie (Christopher Walken), and the lumbering, fun-loving sloth bear Baloo (Bill Murray).
Nearly every shot in "The Jungle Book" could be featured on all those inspirational posters one might find in an office or on the Internet. That's how beautiful this film looks. In a time where today's leading filmmakers value practical effects and real locations over CGI and green screens, Favreau opts to place his only on-screen actor in what is essentially an empty set, leaving it to his team of talented artisans in the visual effects department to surround Mowgli with lavish scenery and animals ranging from the furry to the scaly. This is quite a shock considering how Favreau has made excellent use of practical effects in his earlier films, but the choice to let CGI drive the narrative pays off extraordinarily. The images here are both tangible and surreal. Kipling and Disney would have been proud.
While there are a plethora of visuals to admire, the voice acting is just as dynamic. Murray may lack the baritone swagger that one might imagine Baloo to have, but he does a fine job with the comedic timing (as usual). Kingsley's worldly-wise voice fits Bagheera very well, providing the protective panther with both tenderness and authority. The casting of Johansson as Kaa in order to avert the pervy demeanor that the python had in the animated version is one of the smartest changes made for Favreau's film. Instead of a creepy old geezer, Kaa now resembles a temptress, a gypsy of the jungle, if you will. Nyong'o is also lovely to hear as Raksha, Mowgli's intensely maternal wolf-mother. Elba and Walken are the show-stealer's of Favreau's marvelous vocal ensemble. Both of their voices have commanding presence, but the two could not be more different from each other. Elba nails the grisly menace and world-weariness of Shere Khan, who is the movie villain to beat this year so far. Walken endows King Louie with the charisma of an opportunistic mob boss, making the giant ape imposing, but just enough to still infuse him with charm.
For the most part, Favreau does well with evoking the mythic qualities of Kipling's books while paying homage to the film's animated predecessor. There are a few points, however, where the nostalgic bits clash with the film's heavier components. The lighter scenes with Baloo, including a sequence where he and Mowgli recite "The Bare Necessities," push the film a little close to the realm of camp, but Favreau thankfully cuts it short before it turns into a simple rehash of what we've already seen before. King Louie also makes a slightly awkward segway into "I Wan'na Be Like You" as he persuades Mowgli to give him the secret of fire, or as the animals call it, the red flower. All the same, Walken's take on the song is hard not to admire.
Disney's original animated treasure will forever be engrained into the minds of many generations, but Favreau's visually exotic take is sure to become something of a classic in its own right, thanks to its captivating characters, a near-perfect cast and an overarching a sense of majesty. In simplest terms, "The Jungle Book" is a beautiful combination of old school storytelling and CGI artistry; a feat that will set new standards for remakes and visual effects filmmaking.