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Review: 'The Jungle Book' remains a thrilling adventure in new CGI marvel

Newcomer Neel Sethi is serviceable as Mowgli, but the vocal performances are terrific, led by Bill Murray’s much-needed comic relief as Baloo the bear.
Newcomer Neel Sethi is serviceable as Mowgli, but the vocal performances are terrific, led by Bill Murray’s much-needed comic relief as Baloo the bear.
Published Apr. 13, 2016

In any movie form, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book remains a thrilling adventure, an enduring source of backyard imagination, no cosplay props required. But maybe a pet.

After two outdated live action and one beloved animated versions, director Jon Favreau crafts a marvelous hybrid, practically a one-boy show with CGI animal-ated realism. This Jungle Book on screen may look exactly as Kipling imagined.

If only Favreau would allow audiences to see more of it.

Instead, he often chooses to stage such spectacular visuals in so many gradients of dark. The necessary 3D glasses already shade light, so using so many caves and rain showers, mud slides and night is frustrating. Not a deal breaker but something for popcorn filmmakers to consider.

By any other technical comparisons, The Jungle Book is everything to be expected from Disney mining its title library. Screenwriter Justin Marks lifts from Disney's 1967 animated abridgment of Kipling's short story collection. Respect is paid (dearly) with a pair of reprised musical numbers somewhat out of place.

Those two scenes, starring Bill Murray's voice as Baloo the bear crooning The Bare Necessities and Christopher Walken as King Louie sing-speaking I Wanna Be Like You, feel like the rightest parts of a movie doing little else wrong. All of Favreau's technology and pacing can be admired, but it's those lighter (and in Baloo's case much brighter) sequences that will stick.

They make one wish to hear Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the python hissing Trust in Me or perhaps Idris Elba's Shere Khan putting a tiger's spin on the vultures' That's What Friends Are For. Favreau was already shaping a state-of-the-art winner before suddenly making us miss the past then dropping it as abruptly.

Practically the lone human on screen is newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli, an orphan rescued from Shere Khan's fatal instincts by Bagheera the black panther (Ben Kingsley). Mowgli is entrusted to a wolf pack, raised by Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito).

Favreau's circle of life moment comes with the discovery of Peace Rock and its saving water pools. This calls for a water truce when the food chain is unlocked and everyone drinks in harmony. Harmony is disrupted when Shere Khan sniffs out Mowgli, demanding his life. Mowgli escapes with Bagheera, who believes it's time the boy rejoined civilization.

From there, Favreau's movie essentially becomes Heart of Darkness for kids, its episodic jungle quest leading to this movie's Kurtz, a gigantopithecus named King Louie. At the story's core is mankind's "Red Flower" — the power of fire — that King Louie wants from Mowgli.

Sethi is serviceable, looking the part if not asked to emote much. The vocal performances are terrific, led by Murray's much-needed comic relief and Johansson as a serpent seductress utilizing all four corners of the auditorium's audio system. Elba's voice positively drips with evil, while Kingsley nicely underplays for a change.

The Jungle Book could use better lighting and less of John Debney's musical score insisting each moment be melodically underlined twice. Still, it's a movie to thrill and perhaps inspire kids to play Mowgli games again. Not outside, of course. Now there's an app for that.

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Contact Steve Persall at or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.


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