Special Effects, Bill Murray Make "The Jungle Book" Worth The Trip

Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” is Disney’s second live-action run at Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories, following Stephen Sommers’ 1994 adventure movie. (It remains, arguably, the high water mark of the “G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra” director’s career.) This new version also has the dubious distinction of being an adaptation of an adaptation, mostly following the path forged by the 1967 animated film, one that had little in common with Kipling’s stories to begin with.

Accordingly, Favreau’s 2016 high-tech update is just that – a spectacular special effects showcase that doesn’t quite have the narrative ingenuity to merit its own existence. There are moments of real visual and emotional firepower here, but its whole is an odd mix of modern (read: dark) storytelling and awkward nods to its significantly sunnier antecedent.

But more on the musical numbers in a moment.

First-timer Neel Sethi stars as Mowgli, the young man-cub raised from infancy by wolves in the rainforests of India. Sethi’s task is a tall one. Acting almost exclusively against green screen with animal characters that wouldn’t be animated for months, the young actor could’ve crumbled in the face of carrying a $175 million blockbuster. But instead he turns in a nimble, charming performance that leaves no doubt he’s walking among all kinds of exotic animal species.

His scenes with Bagheera the black panther (voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley) are particularly appealing.

When Mowgli’s wolf parents Raksha (Lupita N’yongo) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) order him to leave the pack – a response to threats from malevolent Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) – it’s Bagheera who remains a constant, shepherding the boy through his frequently dangerous journey back to his own kind. As the movie’s connective tissue, Kingsley is more than up to the task, giving a warm, gentle performance.

Along the way we encounter a gigantic python, Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), and a great ape, Louie (Christopher Walken), each impeccably realized by Disney’s animators. But it’s Bill Murray’s voice performance as Baloo the bear that’s predictably the film’s best.

Few could hope to live up to the late Phil Harris’ iconic pipes, but Murray is exactly what Baloo calls for: droll, a little grumpy, and subtly anarchic. Not only does the actor’s voice fit the animal’s design – it’s impossible to tell where the script ends and his ad-libs begin.

A delightful scene in which Baloo watches Mowgli collect honey from high atop a cliff is a highlight. Even when the story becomes a bit too episodic, Murray and company step up to sell both their characters and the restorative power of friendships between man and animal. And some of the environments are so believable that they might as well be out of a nature film.

However, the two aforementioned musical sequences highlight an underlying imbalance in the project. Roger and Richard Sherman’s “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You” are great songs whose pop culture ubiquity is nearly unmatched in the Disney canon. With bouncy melodies and acrobatic lyrics, they’re hard to get wrong, but Favreau does. Whether they should have been included at all is a debate worth having – the scenes feel a step beyond perfunctory – but Favreau’s staging is wildly unimaginative.

Christopher Walken’s performance of “I Wan’na Be Like You” in particular is an absolute head-scratcher. Louie bizarrely sits in place and sings a song to Mowgli with lyrics that don’t quite fit the story being told and a melody that doesn’t match the visual palette of the film. The sequence is vintage Jon Favreau, a competent director with real blind spots for internal logic and staging (e.g. “Cowboys & Aliens”). The “Bare Necessities” sequence is equally passive but gets by on the rapport between Sethi and Murray.

Like “Cinderella” before it, the 2016 version of “The Jungle Book” is caught between nostalgia and forward thinking, sure to play best with viewers who haven’t seen the animated version. Nevertheless, its full effect requires the theatrical experience (if not the 3D surcharge), one that’s sure to evoke oohs and aahs across all age groups. (Its closing credits are especially creative.)

If the movie is barely necessary, that doesn’t negate its computer-generated pleasures or the presence of Bill Murray, who continues to be great at being Bill Murray. Even – or especially – as a sloth bear.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: April 15, 2016
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenwriter: Justin Marks
Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken
MPAA Rating: PG (for some sequences of scary action and peril)