Back in 1967, Disney’s release of “The Jungle Book” as a cartoon took the world by storm, not only sparking massive box-office success but also inspiring screen legend Gregory Peck to lobby unsuccessfully for the Motion Picture Academy to change its rules to allow animated films to compete for Best Picture honors. It also was the last cartoon Walt Disney worked on before he died, and its success following his passing helped save the studio from shutting down its animation division.
Now, nearly 50 years later, Disney has conjured up an epic live-action version of “The Jungle Book,” this time featuring one on-screen human actor – an Indian-American boy named Neel Sethi, who had just one prior credit in a short film – as the main character of Mowgli. The rest of the film’s vibrant sets and incredibly realistic animals are all computer-generated, with every frame of the film shot on indoor sets rather than any actual jungle locations.
And the results are spectacular. Director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man,” “Elf,” “Chef”) was a surprising choice for the material but he knocks it out of the park from first moment to last with a lush, vibrant, exciting and often funny movie that appears fully alive and gives “Avatar” a run for its money as perhaps the lushest effects-driven movie ever created. And yes, it’s totally Dateworthy.
The movie’s tale, based on the classic book by Rudyard Kipling, follows the life of a boy named Mowgli, who was found by a panther named Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) after his father had been killed by an evil tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba). Shere Khan was horribly scarred by fire as Mowgli’s father defended himself and his child, and ran off without seeing the boy.
Now, ten years later, Shere Khan wants to kill the boy (called a “man-cub” by the jungle’s residents) as revenge for his disfigurement. Bhagheera and the wolf pack that raised him are determined to save Mowgli long enough to enable him to return to the nearest human village, but as Mowgli dodges all manner of danger along his journey home, he winds up befriending a sloth bear named Baloo (Bill Murray) and using his human ingenuity to help the two of them thrive in the jungle.
The tension between the fun parts of Mowgli’s life and the menacing dangers he encounters makes for a perfectly paced and thoroughly engaging time at the movies. It is rare for a movie to so thoroughly immerse viewers in an entirely different world, and that process is helped immeasurably by the pitch-perfect voice casting of stars in even brief roles.
Scarlett Johannson is smoothly seductive as a giant python named Kaa, while Elba and Kingsley bring regal charm and menace to their turns as the most powerful creatures battling over Mowgli’s fate. But it’s Bill Murray as Baloo that really brings the movie to its fullest level of magic, as he brings full-bodied humor and impish charm to the best-loved character in both this film and the original cartoon, where Baloo was voiced by George Sanders. The fact that Sethi pulls off a wide-ranging performance without any other actual humans to play off of for nearly two hours is remarkable, but it’s a debut for the ages that should open many more doors for him as an actor.
While this “Jungle Book” is much more realistic due to the incredible leaps in technology and the live-action approach, it doesn’t forget its sense of fantasy and wonder (and two terrific songs carried over from the original and sung here by Murray and Christopher Walken) thanks to the fact its animal characters speak and act so believably. Favreau and the rest of the Disney team pull off the difficult feat of having Mowgli survive tiger attacks, rampaging water buffaloes, mudslides, floods, bees and much more while still maintaining a PG rating that ensures entire families can have a thrilling time together.