When wise old panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) discovers a young boy stranded in the jungle, he turns him over to a wolf pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), who raise the “man-cub” Mowgli (Neel Sethi) as one of their own. Years pass and a dry season arrives far harsher than any before it, prompting a “water truce” that brings all the animals of the jungle together to drink at Peace Rock. The ferocious tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) uses this opportunity to confront the wolf pack, demanding that they turn Mowgli over to him.
Fearing for their son’s life, Akela allows Bagheera to escort the boy on a perilous trek to a human village near the edge of the jungle. After braving all sorts of dangers (including a very large snake), Mowgli’s journey brings him face to face with fun-loving bear Baloo (Bill Murray), who entices the boy with his carefree way of life. But it’s not long before Mowgli realizes he must make a choice – flee and abandon all he knows and loves, or stay and face the deadly wrath of Shere Khan.
The talking animals are immediately a bit more jarring when not inside a completely animated film. The paradox, of course, is that they essentially are in a completely animated film, even though it doesn’t look that way. The computer models, props, and animation are so sharp and realistic that they routinely fool the eye into believing real creatures were used in the making of this latest adaptation of the popular Rudyard Kipling yarn. It’s certainly cruelty-free when every scene, no matter how simple or calm, can be populated by all sorts of wildlife that doesn’t actually exist.
In close-ups the authenticity is astounding; the muscle movements, fur, dirt, water, and countless little details are so impressive that they put “Life of Pi’s” monumental striped cat to shame. In longer shots, however, the weight/gravity issue is still a tiny bit off, but it’s easily forgotten amidst all the hubbub of mudslides and stampedes and raging rivers. The environments are so exquisite that it’s difficult to remember that a narrative ought to be surfacing from time to time.
If Stephen Sommer’s 1994 version of “The Jungle Book” was a cross between Kipling’s tales and Tarzan’s odysseys (or Indiana Jones’ skirmishes in the jungle), this newest take throws in a helping of “The Lion King” and “Avatar” with its high-flying treetop adventures and battles with ruthless animal kingdom warlords. There’s also a hint of “The Ghost and the Darkness” (or “Clash of the Titans”) with all the jump scares delivered by oversized monstrosities, which could prove far too severe for small children. Elba’s voice makes for a sensational Khan, but the creature is genuinely frightening during the numerous sequences in which he bites, claws, and lunges at smaller, fluffier, partially anthropomorphized protagonists.
Although the plot doesn’t have to follow too closely to any previous vision, especially considering the elements of the story that have become common knowledge, Mowgli’s introduction amidst the wolves gives plenty of wiggle room to re-introduce familiar characters (like Kaa and Baloo) in his voyage back to the man village – and through the embellished sets of the monkey temple or Baloo’s more peaceful corner of the jungle. Emotional moments, intense action, and thundering music help to combat Sethi’s middling performance (great child actors are tough to find) and the strange inclusion of Disney’s 1967 songs, which absolutely do not match the creepiness of the gigantic, hostile enemies or the harshness of their intentions. Nevertheless, director Jon Favreau has crafted a fine adaptation, even if the unforgettable visuals drastically surpass the effectiveness – or freshness – of the storytelling.