Disney's new "live-action" version of The Jungle Book is a light and airy concoction, dripping with the menace of Rudyard Kipling's book, while simultaneously allowing for the levity of the animated Disney film from 1967.
I use quotes around live-action because huge portions of the film are computer-generated — for much of it, the only "real" element is Neel Sethi, the young boy who plays Mowgli, the child who was abandoned in the jungle as a baby and raised by wolves and a friendly panther.
But the images are frequently photorealistic and stunning. Occasionally, one of the fake animals will move and it will seem slightly glitchy, as if a computer screensaver is trying to leap off the screen, but The Jungle Book's use of 3D and advanced effects often creates an intoxicating spell. Its jungle is close enough to reality to feel dangerous, but also otherworldly enough to seem like a place you'd love to visit.
The Jungle Book is beautifully directed, despite some flaws
The glue holding The Jungle Book together is director Jon Favreau. Though he's most famous now for directing Elf and the first two Iron Man films, I've always felt his 2005 children's movie Zathura was unfortunately overlooked as a charming film for the younger set.
More often than not, Favreau places his camera at Mowgli's eye level, letting the viewer become the boy and making the whole movie that much more of an experience.
But even though The Jungle Book is tremendously fun to look at, it sometimes feels trapped between embodying a vision that hews closer to the original book and sating those who love the animated film.
Which is to say that the animals sing, but they don't sing much. When the movie tries to conclude by borrowing directly from Kipling's text in hopes of overcoming its episodic structure — where Mowgli runs into animal after animal out there in the jungle — it feels forced in a way that its more leisurely portions don't. In particular, the movie's attempts to sand off some of Kipling's pro-colonialist themes lead to sections that don't make a lot of sense (again, especially in the ending).
It also doesn't help that Sethi is the film's weakest link in terms of performance. He's fine, but he's very obviously a child actor, in a movie that requires something slightly more ethereal. He shouts and crows and cheers, and whatever. It's cool. But you want to get back to the animals.
But there's still so much good here. As the film ended, I still felt transported, especially during the closing credits, which unfurl like a pop-up book filled with tiny versions of all the animals you've just met. It was like a really vivid dream.
Let's rank the talking animals in The Jungle Book!
Any Jungle Book lives and dies by its talking animals, and this one is no different. Here, then, are all of the major characters of The Jungle Book, ranked, from best to worst.
1) Bagheera the panther, as voiced by Ben Kingsley
Though Baloo the bear is the guy everybody wants to hang out with, any iteration of The Jungle Book is only as good as its Bagheera. He's the concerned parent, worried about what his child will find around the next corner, the big cat who knows he has to let go just a little but can't find it in himself to do so.
Occasionally, Bagheera's overprotectiveness gives The Jungle Book the feeling of 2015's Room; both the panther and Brie Larson's character in that earlier film must protect their child from extreme danger, while also preparing them for what's about to come.
By the very nature of the story, Bagheera has to be sidelined for a time — so that Mowgli is forced to confront the dangers of the jungle alone — but this version of the tale really made me feel the cat's absence. That's a good sign.
2) Shere Khan the tiger, as voiced by Idris Elba
Shere Khan is a single-minded villain in the animated film, someone who wants to gobble up Mowgli because man doesn't belong in the jungle.
In this movie, he's still single-minded and still wants to eat the boy, but he's also, on some level, right. Shere Khan's argument is that Mowgli is a man, and man brings destruction and death to the jungle, whether via hunting or the "red flower" (fire) that spreads and kills so many creatures. It's hard to argue with him, and any time the baddie has a legitimate point of view it's another good sign.
He's a surprisingly complex villain, and Elba voices him with snarling, horrible ferocity. He's great. (Between The Jungle Book, Zootopia, and the upcoming Finding Dory, Elba is becoming one of Disney's staple voice actors. It's a welcome development.)
3) Baloo the bear, as voiced by Bill Murray
This is sort of the film's easiest layup. Bill Murray as the lackadaisical bear who sings about the "Bare Necessities"? The second you tell me such a scenario exists in this movie, I want to see it.
So, yes, Baloo is charming and funny and a good time. The computer animators have done a fine job of making him seem believably bearlike while still turning his big bear snout into a happy grin.
But it kinda feels like Murray is phoning this one in. His vocal performance is better than the one he gives in the Garfield films, but it's not that much better. Both Kingsley and Elba turn in deeply felt performances. Murray appears to be leaning too heavily on the idea that Bill Murray as Baloo is cool. (Which, to be fair, it is.)
4) Kaa the python, as voiced by Scarlett Johansson
The Jungle Book is a boy-heavy story. The animated film didn't have any major female characters, and the animated version from the Soviet Union (which is a fascinating watch if you have the time) compensated by having Bagheera be a woman. But even then, The Jungle Book is about a boy's coming of age, and it's full of boyish tropes of the genre.
Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks have made several small tweaks to the story to make it more palatable to modern audiences. One of them is gender-flipping the python who tries to hypnotize Mowgli with her eyes and then crush him to death. Obviously, this approach could have gone terribly wrong.
Fortunately, the film casts Johansson in the role, and she turns Kaa into an almost ghostly presence, haunting the jungle and waiting for Mowgli to fall into her coils. The whole sequence is too disconnected from the rest of the film to work, really, but even so, it does. It makes for some of the film's most visually entrancing images.
5) Assorted wolves, as voiced by Lupita Nyong'o, Giancarlo Esposito, and others
The wolf pack that raises Mowgli is a bit of an afterthought in the animated film, but it's far more important to Kipling's book. In the new film, the wolf pack has been recast as a strong, stable family unit that Mowgli must leave behind, much to his sorrow. Giving Mowgli something to truly lose makes the film's stakes more palpable.
Once Mowgli leaves, though, the film doesn't quite know what to do with the wolves. It teases various plots involving them — including one particularly dastardly one featuring Shere Khan — but it mostly seems flummoxed by their continued presence in the story.
Fortunately, both Nyong'o (as Mowgli's adoptive mother) and Esposito (as the leader of the pack) are very good in their brief roles. Their casting also speaks to The Jungle Book's impressive diversity in its voice ensemble, if nothing else.
6) Every other animal, but especially the elephants
The elephants are The Jungle Book's version of Jurassic Park's dinosaurs. Rather than march about in military formation as they did in the animated film, they sway, gracefully, between the trees — like strange, hidden gods who emerge from the mists and then disappear back into them. Bagheera treats them with deep reverence, and it's easy to see why.
The film's other animal characters are mostly present to provide side jokes in a variety of scenes. There's a great cameo by the late Garry Shandling, and a fun scene where various animals place bets on whether one of Baloo's schemes will pay off.
It's all goofy, but charming, as it should be, and it contributes to the feeling of the jungle being a kooky small town where everybody knows everybody else.
7) King Louie the ape, as voiced by Christopher Walken
The Jungle Book is just scary enough to provoke nightmares in the youngest and frailest of kids. But it's one thing when Shere Khan — who's meant to be scary — is prompting those nightmares, and another when it's Walken as Louie, the "gigantopithecus" (basically a huge orangutan) who wants to learn the secret of how to make fire so he can rule the jungle. (Mowgli doesn't know.)
It's clear this sequence is supposed to fall somewhere between horror and goofiness, but it can never walk the line as well as it wants to. Louie is huge, and it always feels like he might lunge out of the screen and grab you in his giant paw, even as he's bouncing around and singing, "I Wanna Be Like You" (the second of the two songs from the animated film to make it into this one).
This might be okay if it all paid off in a cool action sequence, but the chase after Mowgli tries to escape is one of the film's weaker moments. It's one of the few times when The Jungle Book's attempts to stick in tight on Mowgli's point of view leads to real confusion for the viewer.
Still, Christopher Walken sings. It's not all bad.
The Jungle Book is playing in theaters throughout the country.