Hollywood is regularly criticized for its reboot- and sequel-heavy business model, often milking a franchise for two or three sequels before the well runs dry — then waiting a decade to reboot it and start all over. This usually is a fair criticism — a classic like “Jaws” turns into a trilogy of ever-diminishing returns until you end up with a growling shark in “Jaws: The Revenge.” But less frequently, we receive a brand-new look at an old story. Familiar characters appear born again, rather than taxidermied. Jon Favreau’s live-action reboot of “The Jungle Book” is an argument for do-overs.
Anyone with a VCR should be familiar with the story of the man-cub Mowgli (now played by Neel Sethi), an orphan rescued by the black panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) and raised in the jungle by wolves Akeela and Raksha (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o, respectively). Trouble arises when Bengal tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) — whose burned face serves as evidence of the destructive nature of man — takes issue with the wolves harboring the human child. Kahn makes it known that he looks to kill the boy and whoever stands in his way.
Mowgli volunteers to leave the pack and Bagheera escorts him back toward the man village, a journey which brings him into contact with the shifty python Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the shiftless bear Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray) and the titanic ape King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken).
“The Jungle Book” is created almost entirely with computers. 12 year-old Sethi is usually the only naturally-occurring object in the frame. This means everything from mouse to elephant is digital, and the film’s effects team has done a pretty bang-up job at plagiarizing the Creator.
Not only have they avoided the uncanny valley problem that has plagued many CGI-centric movies before them, they manage to portray emotions in animals who often look as real as the ones you might have seen at a zoo. When Baloo reluctantly sends Mowgli on his way and tells Bagheera, “If anything happens to that boy, I’ll never forgive myself,” Murray’s voice acting isn’t doing all the heavy lifting — Baloo looks convincingly remorseful.
That said, the animation sometimes struggles when Favreau includes groups of animals in the frame. The wolf Raksha looks fantastic in close-ups, but less-so when her many pups are included.
Favreau never quite gives us the full scope of his digital jungle, often keeping the camera close to its subjects. An early scene in which all of the animals of the jungle congregate doesn’t have the grand feeling of something like the “Circle of Life” scene in “Lion King.”
The imagery is impressive, but Favreau — director of films like “Elf” and “Iron Man” — has always been more about performances than aesthetics. Nyong’o, who has appeared in precious few screen roles since her Oscar-winning turn in “12 Years a Slave,” typifies fierce motherly love as Raksha. Elba ditches the original Kahn’s posh tone for a more bitter, emotional interpretation of the scarred tiger. Likewise, Walken’s King Louie is played more as a mob boss than the animated film’s goofy monkey monarch. Murray is typically good as Baloo, whose laidback demeanor lends itself to Murray’s charming slacker persona.
The only weak link here is Sethi, whose comic timing is fairly good, but he struggles to achieve any sort of dramatic gravitas in the film’s later scenes.
Perhaps the most puzzling decision isn’t a change, but a holdover from the original Disney production — the songs. Baloo’s “Bare Necessities” works well enough, made into a montage showing Baloo and Mowgli’s budding friendship — Murray’s amateurish singing add to the bear’s hippie persona — but King Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You” is as tonally discordant as Walken’s vocals. Walken is terrifically menacing before the song, demanding Mowgli hand over the secret of fire. Then the music starts up, and we hear what sounds like a bit from Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.”
Oddball musical numbers aside, Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” is a delightful revamping of a Disney and literary classic. It manages to add some Darwinian grit to the story without turning it joylessly bleak. So good, in fact, a sequel is already planned.