Perhaps like you, dear reader, I approached Disney's new version of "The Jungle Book" with a chip on my shoulder and the question "Why? Just, why?" The answer, I assumed, was because "they" can, and there's gold in them thar trees. But Jon Favreau's live-action/CGI spectacle turns out to be a mighty impressive adventure film for kids that accumulates substantial reasons to justify its existence.
Disney took its first crack at Rudyard Kipling's 1894 anthology "The Jungle Book" in 1967, with a now-iconic animated film. A live-action take followed in 1994, a direct-to-video title in 1998, an animated sequel in 2003, and now the Favreau film, which derives directly from both the 1967 film and the books by Kipling. Favreau retains jungle-boy Mowgli's red-swaddling outfit, the '67 film's characterizations and basic plot outline, and three songs ("The Bare Necessities," "I Wan'na Be Like You," and, on the end credits, "Trust in Me"), but screenwriter Justin Marks also puts a bit more "Book" (read Kipling) in this "Jungle Book."
Raised-by-wolves Mowgli (live-action actor Neel Sethi) loves his adoptive parents Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o), but pressure from murder-on-his-mind tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) sends the "man-cub" toward civilization, a self-sacrifice for the common good of peace in the jungle 'hood (similarly, one of this film's nice flourishes is a "water truce" amongst predators and prey at a watering hole dubbed "Peace Rock"). Mowgli's journey includes guidance from black panther and longtime mentor Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and new acquaintance Baloo (Bill Murray), a honey-hungry bear all too happy to exploit Mowgli's daring and skill at scaling jungle topography.
Indeed, one of the film's most salient action elements is the frequent depiction of Mowgli scrambling across creeper-covered tree limbs or tumbling down hills and right back onto his footing. These scenes have an exhilarating energy familiar from the now-dominant superhero genre, and, similarly, it's not surprising to see the film explore the shared backstory of Mowgli and Shere Khan, which serves to explain the latter's rage. In keeping with episodic children's stories like "The Wizard of Oz," "Alice in Wonderland," and the original "Jungle Book," Mowgli also has encounters with hypnotic snake Kaa (effectively gender-swapped for Scarlett Johansson) and the Gigantopithecus ape King Louie (Christopher Walken).
Listen, if you don't think having Walken sing "I Wan'na Be Like You" amounts to genius well worth the price of admission, I can't help you. Bill Murray predictably kills it as Baloo, especially with his well-earned apparent ad libs (verbal head-spin like "Let me interrupt myself"), Kingsley and the rest hit all the right vocal notes, Sethi carries the ball admirably in the lead, and the CGI proves astonishing in selling the animal characters and their jungle home. (Plus, the recently, dearly departed Garry Shandling is a porcupine.)
The climax feels needlessly prolonged, but Favreau and Marks have obviously put some thought into the film's visual approach and the messages the film will send: the animal kingdom's unexpected threats and opportunities for loving harmony with humankind; the work Mowgli puts in to come-of-age and to terms with his true nature; his casual kindheartedness, pegged as "special" by his elders; and his refusal to submit to fear. For a bonus, "Wonderful World of Disney" fans and uninitiated kids will equally appreciate the nostalgic and newfangled audiovisual punch of the closing credits, a satisfying CGI-animated postscript to the partly live-action feature.
Rated PG for some sequences of scary action and peril. One hour, 45 minutes.