You can practically feel the beating heart of the jungle in Jon Favreau’s stunning adaptation of “The Jungle Book,” which is easily the most visually dazzling movie to hit theaters this year.
Like “Avatar” before it, this CG and live-action interpretation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale of the boy raised by wolves feels like a momentous occasion in the technical advancements of big-budget cinema.
From the thrill of a distant waterfall to the terror of a mudslide or stampeding buffalo, Favreau and his visual effects maestros have created artificial living things that look and feel real.
Even the animals’ ability to communicate in English seems as natural as their breathing and emoting. They have not been sanitized to be cute or less threatening either — even the tender mama wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o).
They still look like wild animals and, for the most part, act like wild animals, too. At first, this actually makes their close interactions with the human boy Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) even more disarming. Eventually, your nerves calm and you submit to the magic of this world.
The story follows the same beats as Disney’s animated feature from 1967, but Favreau and his team made sure to up the intensity a few notches — the hyperrealism of the animals necessitates it. The tension created by the fact that they all have claws and teeth and instinct to contend with is always there.
You’re already on edge by the time the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba, in a stunning vocal performance that’s both terrifying and relatable) enters the picture. He adamantly believes that humans should not be living among them and is prepared to use whatever intimidation tactics are necessary to rid their world of Mowgli.
This sends the young boy on a journey to the human village with the stoic panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Anyone with the vaguest memory of “The Jungle Book” will remember the characters the boy encounters on the way — the snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and the orangutan King Louie (Christopher Walken).
Although it is somewhat distracting to have such famous voices overwhelming every scene, each does a fine job — especially Murray, who brings a much-needed comedic lightness to the story with his affably conniving Baloo in the second act.
Sethi is energetic and enthusiastic as Mowgli — an adventurous kid who’s as unfazed by a handful of bee stings as he is a gargantuan snake. But for all the attention to detail, there’s an unnatural modernity to the dialogue he’s given that can be trying at times. For the most part, he blends in as well as the sole human among wild CG animals could possibly be expected to.
On the subject of things seeming out of place, there also are two songs from the 1967 film that are integrated into the story — “The Bear Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You.” (“Trust In Me” plays over the credits.)
One works, and one really doesn’t. Murray makes “The Bear Necessities” fit into his laid-back existence as he hums and sings the song with Mowgli as they float down a serene river. “I Wanna Be Like You,” however, is awkward and clumsy — a ditty of a song that comes out of nowhere and sucks the air out of the crucial climax.
It makes no sense in the context of this world that Walken’s mob boss ape would just break into song. And, if he did, it definitely wouldn’t be this song.
Indeed, much of the third act feels more like a checklist than plot advancement, and the emotional arc neither lives up to its source material nor the beauty of the visuals.
Still, it is one of the stronger of Disney’s live-action adaptations and executed with such sincerity and technical prowess and inspiring ingenuity that it’s more promising than anything else — a true family-friendly adventure that’s smart and often thrilling.