The Jungle Book
2016, PG, 105 min. Directed by Jon Favreau. Voices by Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Garry Shandling. Starring Neel Sethi.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., April 15, 2016
Walt Disney Pictures’ beautiful and thrilling live-action/CGI/3-D (whew!) adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s timeless collection of fables about man-cub Mowgli (Sethi) and the furry denizens of his tropical habitat often feels like a video game or a theme-park ride: It’s a fast-paced and engaging entertainment, but lacks some of the pathos you might expect. Its heart beats in your throat, not in your gut. (Maybe the mythic resonance of The Lion King has set the genre’s bar too high.) Although kids are the primary demographic, the film is intense, scary, and occasionally brutal in its depiction of the laws of the jungle, as the 10-year-old Mowgli flees the jaws of his feline nemesis, the malevolent tiger Shere Khan (silkily voiced by Elba), or encounters the violent demands of King Louie (Walken), the outsize orangutan who offers the orphaned boy protection in return for the secret of the “red flowers,” the name given to the man-trick all animals fear the most: the flames of fire. (Using Walken’s choppy Brooklynese cadence to utter the simian Godfather’s dialogue is near genius.) And yet, The Jungle Book frequently shields its young viewers from the consequences of its dark narrative by dodging the sorrow and pain that come with death or the possibility of death. When Mowgli becomes separated from his devoted protector, the black panther Bagheera (Kingsley), after barely escaping the single-mindedly vengeful Shere Khan, there’s no consequent emotional fallout for the boy, who’s on his own until he meets the sloth bear Baloo (Murray, who always sounds as if he ad-libs most of his lines). What’s more, despite the bared fangs and extended claws that dominate much of the action, only one character dies (to be fair, a beloved one), and even his demise doesn’t really register in the way it should. The movie is superbly executed in many ways, but what gives?
Still, this is a match made in movie heaven, given that the critters in Kipling’s stories speak and behave like human beings, perfectly suited to Disney’s anthropomorphic tradition of walking and talking animals, which began with Mickey Mouse. The studio’s 1967 version of Kipling’s classic tales (the current film qualifies as a remake of sorts) softened the source’s edges a bit, but it offered a New Orleans jazz-infused score unlike anything in the company’s previous animated features. (Uncle Walt died the year before its release, though he undoubtedly blessed these unorthodox musical selections.) The new Jungle Book retains the two best songs, although their inclusion may strike the unfamiliar as clunky and unexpected. But for any baby boomer who danced around the living room singing about the bare/bear necessities of life or vocalized an ape who yearns to be human, the renditions of those tunes here are bound to summon a smile. Forget about your worries and your strife, indeed.