Disney’s “The Jungle Book” Creates a Breathtaking Computerized World That’s Wonderfully Believable


APRIL 18, 2016


For years, I’ve been arguing with my friends (and for the last year on this blog) how I can’t stand the third act of most Marvel and DC Comics superhero movies because they usually consist of one computer-generated image battling another CGI image to a conclusion in which I feel I have no stake.  (For those of you who suffered through the last hour of “Batman V Superman” — do I have a point?).  CGI usually takes me completely out of a movie.

Now that I have seen the CGI work in the new Disney remake of “The Jungle Book,” I humbly stand corrected.

With the exception of young flesh-and-blood actor Neel Sethi, everything seen on-screen in this lavish remake is computer-generated, and not only is it gorgeous, it is convincingly real.

This isn’t the movies’ first crack at the classic Rudyard Kipling story.  There was the 1942 version with Sabu and a forgettable 1994 Disney remake, the less said about which the better.  Probably the most memorable film remake was Disney’s 1967 jazzy animated musical, with voices including Phil Harris and Louis Prima, which included such memorable numbers as “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You.”

Those songs are present here, as well, but the mood is anything but jazzy.  The jungle here is a dark and sometimes quite scary place.  (So parents with kids under 6 be warned.)  The orphan boy Mowgli (Sethi) has been raised in the jungle by a wolf couple (voiced by Giancarlo Espositio and Lupita Nyong’o) according to the rules of the pack.  The jungle animals live in harmony in their village until the appearance of the malevolent tiger Shere Khan, who has a particular beef with Mowgli and warns the town that, unless they turn Mowgli over to him, he will wreak havoc on their village.

Here in a nutshell is the difference between the 1967 musical and this film.  In the animated movie, Shere Khan was voiced by George Sanders as a preening New York sophisticate, buffing his claws while oozing some kind of droll threat.  Here, as effectively voiced by Idris Elba, he is a terrifying figure whose very presence causes the other animals (and the audience) to freeze.

Not wanting to endanger his family and friends, Mowgli offers to travel to a village populated by “his kind,” but a journey through the jungle can prove to be treacherous.  Along the way, he meets the sly snake Kaa (seductively voiced by Scarlett Johansson, the current queen of voice acting) and Baloo the Bear (hilariously voiced by Bill Murray) who offers to be Mowgli’s protector in exchange for the boy keeping him fed with an ample supply of honey.

Another major change from other film versions is the character of King Louie who, in the animated film, was this loose-limbed hepcat ape down for a good time.  Here, he is this enormous gigantopithecus, an huge ape whose sinister “I Wanna Be Like You” is way more threatening than Louis Prima’s.  He’s voiced by Christopher Walken, and, believe me, you don’t want to cross Christopher Walken.

If all this sounds very dark, fear not.  “The Jungle Book” is in the very capable hands of director Jon Favreau, who is known for his work in independent films (last year’s “Chef”) but is someone who also has the sensibility for intelligent family films (“Elf”) and widescreen spectaculars (“Iron Man”).  Favreau is not afraid of probing the dark side of family films, as he does here, but pulls back just enough before you have to call Child Protective Services.  He gets the balance between comedy and suspense just right here and has delivered a state-of-the-art CGI that rivals Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi.”

And, as my hubby said, the most amazing part of this primal jungle adventure is the last line of the credits:  “Filmed in downtown Los Angeles.”  Wow.