The beloved 1967 Disney cartoon classic The Jungle Book takes on a dazzling live-action-ish life in Jon Favreau's adaptation, a visual wonderment of color, texture, movement and spectacular animal life. Brought to the screen with computergenerated animation, the Indian jungle of Rudyard Kipling's original stories glimmers and shines here, with each fern frond and dappled glade enticing the viewer further into its primal depths. (Think Babe meets The Life of Pi meets Avatar.)
The ethic of exacting detail extends especially to the charismatic mammals who populate the river banks, mangroves and monkey kingdoms of a land that looks enchanted and startlingly real. Whether it's the sleek, glistening coat of the panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) or each individual hair painstakingly undulating on a she-wolf and her pups, every inch of "The Jungle Book" pulses with life, grace and authenticity. Even when this idyllic world turns ugly, it's a thing of rare beauty.
That even goes for Shere Khan (Idris Elba), the wounded, perpetually enraged tiger and arch villain of the film, who makes it his life work to hunt down a little boy named Mowgli, who has been raised by wolves since he was abandoned in the jungle as a baby. Played by Neel Sethi, the only human being seen in "The Jungle Book," Mowgli is an ecstatically dirty, feral child, given to howling with his canine brothers and competing with his protector, Bagheera, on swooping foot-races through the tree-tops.
When Shere Khan sets his threatening sights on Mowgli - convinced that the child will grow into a destructive, marauding adult - it's decided that Mowgli should return to his "own kind," a journey fraught with untold physical and psychic dangers. (Like Zooptopia, The Jungle Book posits the animal kingdom as a peaceable metaphor for pluralism and tolerance from which homo sapiens know-it-alls have much to learn.)
Filmed with dynamism and propulsive, energetic flair, The Jungle Book allows viewers the vicarious pleasure of sidling up to magnificent (sometimes mangy) beasts as if they were household pets. Even when the movie takes on the episodic, repetitive contours of a typical chase film - including some genuinely terrifying fight sequences and a couple of potentially upsetting deaths - the visual environment is so marvelously transporting that plot barely matters.
Fans of the 1967 cartoon will be waiting for their favorite characters to show up, which they do, complete with musical numbers. In the midst of an otherwise traumatizing story, Bill Murray provides his signature, slightly snide comic relief as the honey-loving bear Baloo (so realistic here he looks freshly imported from the "Revenant" set), while Christopher Walken seems to channel both Marlon Brando and Louis Prima as King Louie, a regal, copper-colored gigantopithecus.
Of course, in the earlier film, Louie was just an orangutan. But everything's bigger and brighter and more believable in this iteration of The Jungle Book, which derives much of its pleasure from the silky vocal performances of Kingsley, Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson and a heart-rending posthumous turn by Garry Shandling.
Like all classic Disney productions, The Jungle Book possesses its share of fear, suffering and loss. But somehow the audience comes out whistling - in this case, with joy and quite a bit of awe.
Three and a half stars. Rated PG. Contains sequences of scary action and peril. 106 minutes
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.
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