A lavish technological spectacle, Disney‘s “The Jungle Book” pushes the capabilities of computer-generated imagery even further than the recent efforts of Pixar and the special-effects orgy of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” You’d never guess these jungles and plains were shot in a downtown Los Angeles warehouse, with the bare walls and floor later replaced with photo-realistic scenery and exquisitely animated animals. The story and characters, however, never rise to the same highs, as director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks use Rudyard Kipling‘s collection of short stories, and the inspiration of Disney’s 1967 animated film, to craft an episodic meander that, for all its technological prowess, never quite comes together.
This new take preserves the basic plot arc of Disney’s original animated film, albeit with a much more dark and arguably “modern” tone allowing for intense chase sequences and fights that hew just on the “family friendly” side of explicit violence. While this film a not a musical, a couple songs make the transition (“Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You”) but this is often a far more serious affair, with the panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) leading young human boy Mowgli (played by newcomer Neel Sethi), out of the jungle to protect him from the tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba), who hates Mowgli for his potential to grow into a destructive, fire-using adult.
Story-wise, the film’s highlight is a long section in which Mowgli falls under the tutelage of Baloo, the honey-obsessed bear with con-artist tendencies and the heart of a slacker. Baloo counters Bagheera’s strict but well-meaning instruction by encouraging the use of human tools, which does more to help set up climactic events than it does to push forward anything about the young boy. As voiced by Bill Murray, the bear delicately strides the line between irritating and endearing, with Murray’s performance ultimately shattering any resistance to the gently manipulative creature.
The animators behind all these animals deserve equal credit for the appeal of Baloo and other jungle denizens, all of whom move with weight and effort and even grace. Each character communicates not only with voice, but with primal body movements — a tail twitch or ears laid flat are used as often as voice work to reveal irritation or anger. Even when the film’s energy dips between big action and comedy setpieces, the simple animation of any on-screen animals— and, indeed, the digital creation of the entire natural world — is captivating.
The characters are all recognizable as descended from Kipling, and elements from his original text are scattered throughout, most notably “The Law Of the Jungle” featuring lines such as “the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” A few new concepts appear, too, notably a sort of creation myth held by the jungle animals, which positions elephants as deities on Earth who have the power to shape the jungle. Thematic elements of acceptance also echo Walt Disney Animation’s recent “Zootopia.” That film’s multi-species city is reflected in an impromptu gathering spot for all animals created when severe drought conditions lead to a “water truce,” where all animals may drink from a common source without fear of predation.
However, few of the film’s concepts are pushed very far. The danger of men and the fire they control is a big plot point, but Mowgli’s unusual place in this natural order is questioned only inasmuch as required by the plot. Thematic cohesion slips and slides like a kid running across wet stones, while thin connective tissue joins Kipling’s characters and big set pieces, giving way to a persistent sense of waiting for the next big sequence to come along.
As Mowgli, Neel Sethi guides the story and is able to conquer the major challenge of making the “human cub” appear to be a true part of the digital world, but his performance never quite generates empathy for the kid. Other voice actors, in addition to Murray, go above the call of duty to craft performances which master the script’s demands. Idris Elba is chillingly effective as Shere Khan, his delivery sounding as if hatred for mankind is literally dripping from the tiger’s jaws. Scarlett Johansson, voicing the giant serpent Kaa, has only one short sequence in the film, designed to create severe unease as Mowgli creeps through a dark and misty stretch of dense jungle. Johansson, however, ultimately provides backstory more than anything else. And Christopher Walken, speaking and singing as King Louie, is a bizarre delight, especially as his voice issues from an absolutely gigantic orangutan.
As an event film that thrives on creating a sense of wonder rather than rich story, “The Jungle Book” is more than an incremental step forward in the digital effects arms race, with spectacular end-game images establishing a new high bar for digital reproduction of real-world animals and environments. The strikingly realistic scenery is dappled with color, light and shadow to create dramatic stages for masterful character animations— if only the story played out on this impeccably-realized fantasy had the same persuasive command. [B-]