Disney's annual live-action remake of one of their classic animated films continues with a new version of The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau and essentially an animated film itself, aside from the human Mowgli, played by Neel Sethi, who's asked to act alongside virtually nothing for the entire running time.
As an exercise in visual achievement, this film is tops. All of the animals and backgrounds are CG-rendered and flawless at that, leaving the most you can get out of this as a viewer the absolute wonder of the stunning and realistically rendered images. The sweeping jungle is filled with a spectrum of colorful detail that transports you thoroughly inside the habitat. But as to everything else this movie has to offer, I can't really praise it to the heavens. It of course has one foot set in the 1967 beloved cartoon version, which means it pulls the nostalgia strings by evoking pieces of George Bruns' iconic score (just hearing those notes over the opening titles will make you want to go back and watch the original), and the Sherman Brothers' beloved songs "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You." (Fun fact: the Oscar-nominated "Bare Necessities" actually lost Best Song to "Talk to the Animals" from Doctor Dolittle (!)- I guess handing last year's win to Sam Smith's Bond song may not have been the absolute worst in the history of the category).
But the movie wants to yank on those chains without morphing into a full musical, so the scenes in which it resurrects those songs feel obligatory and half-hearted, especially the King Louie sequence, which aside from the spectacle of Louie himself (voiced by Christopher Walken and this time depicted as a gargantuan, dinosaur-esque creature of mythic proportions), really isn't handled all that well and feels awkward in its lurch toward full blown "let's just burst into song" territory.
The story is structured in a way that follows similar beats to the original. You know it well- Mowgli is a man-cub raised by wolves in the jungle until the day that Shere Khan (intimidatingly voiced by Idris Elba) decides to make him his next human prey, before he can turn into a menacing, full grown man who plays with fire. So the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and new bear friend Baloo (Bill Murray) escort Mowgli through the jungle and save him from near fatal encounters, etc., etc. There's nothing too surprising or below the surface involved here, and frankly, the animals' interactions with Mowgli are hindered by the just below mediocre acting abilities of the 11-year-old Sethi. It's more convincing when you see them talking with each other. Favreau does a nice job moving the action along, and kids will probably go for this in droves, but the humor and the character relationships of the old movie are starkly missing from this one. It's a nice effort that in the end just doesn't amount to much overall. Except for those amazing visuals, of course.
* * 1/2