Film review: The Jungle Book gets a magical restyling

Disney’s update of The Jungle Book, starring Neel Sethi as Mowgli, retains all the wild fun of the 1967 animated original. Photo: Disney Enterprises Disney’s update of The Jungle Book, starring Neel Sethi as Mowgli, retains all the wild fun of the 1967 animated original. Photo: Disney Enterprises

No matter how cynical you may be about the Disney brand, no matter how aware you are of the manipulation of your sentimentality, five minutes in, The Jungle Book will make you forget or not care as you find yourself becoming a believer. The recent spate—and forthcoming slate—of Disney live-action remakes of its own catalogue are much the same way: You know this story, you can practically recite the original by heart and you can tell that this is little more than a way to profit off of existing intellectual properties. But whether through trickery or charm (or both), you can’t help but be on board by the end, even though it does everything you were expecting.

The remake was directed by Jon Favreau, who has a proven record of breathing life into projects that in anyone else’s hands would be destined for mediocrity (Elf, Iron Man, Chef). Much like Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, The Jungle Book is, from beginning to end, the story you remember from the animated film without a trace of Huntsman-style revisionism. The plot description may as well be a list of its selling points, but here goes. This is still the story of Mowgli, the man-cub (Neel Sethi) raised by wolves, the wicked tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), wise panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), affable bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and scheming ape King Louie (Christopher Walken), with a brief appearance by python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson). Fan favorites “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” feature prominently—if awkwardly—while Johansson’s rendition of the under-appreciated “Trust In Me” gets tucked into the credits. This is what you signed up for, this is what you get.

That said, there are two areas where The Jungle Book sails past its source material (which in this case, let’s be honest, is the 1967 movie, not Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 book). The first is in the stunning visuals in what might be called the first realistic depiction of live actors interacting with computer-animated, talking animals. Through advances in photorealistic graphics and the greatest motion capture performances since Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Jungle Book does an admirable job of steering around the moviegoing public’s CG fatigue with thoughtful artistry and technical wizardry.

The second thing that makes The Jungle Book better than it has to be is the characterization of Mowgli as a kid, not a Disnified bundle of wide-eyed precocious tropes. When Mowgli talks Bagheera’s ear off with his dead-end trains of thought, he does so with a natural innocence that makes these scenes adorable instead of grating. Granted, this kid can talk to animals and is a prodigy of mechanical engineering, but Sethi is so perfect in the role that you have to wonder if this is just how he really is or if it’s one of the greatest child performances of all time.

There is a strong odor of inevitability to everything about The Jungle Book that is inescapable. But, for whatever reason you find yourself seeing it—babysitting, familial obligation, genuine curiosity—the charm and spectacle will carry you through any groan-inducing moments along the way.

The Jungle Book

PG, 106 minutes

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