"THE JUNGLE BOOK" — 3½ stars — Neel Sethi and voices of Bill Murray, Sir Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson; PG (sequences of scary action and peril); in general release
"The Jungle Book" is one of the most effective blends of computer-generated imagery and live action in recent memory. We've been seeing countless remakes and reboots of celebrated favorites over the last decade, and in most cases, it's hard to see anything but the bottom line as their primary inspiration.
But director Jon Favreau's film more than justifies the effort, and "The Jungle Book" should stand as a landmark in special effects advancement.
The film is drawn from two sources: Disney's 1967 animated film, and Rudyard Kipling's original Jungle Book novels. The story will be familiar to anyone who grew up on the animated film, following its basic plot, with a few adjustments that make it more true to Kipling's books.
The story is centered on Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young child who was taken in by the animals of the jungle after being separated from his family. His primary guardian (and the film's narrator) is a panther named Bagheera (voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley), who arranges to have Mowgli raised by a pack of wolves, led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o).
As the story opens, Mowgli is struggling to keep up with his adopted siblings, but life is about to get a lot tougher. A menacing tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who was scarred in an encounter with a human years earlier, marks Mowgli for death. He's convinced that once Mowgli reaches adulthood, he will be a threat to the jungle's animal community.
After some consideration, Bagheera decides to take Mowgli on a journey to a nearby village, where Mowgli can rejoin his people and presumably live a fulfilling, tiger-free existence. Along the way, the boy encounters dark and wondrous worlds within worlds, all packed with exciting and often dangerous creatures.
Fans of the story will be happy to see Mowgli encounter Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) and Kaa the snake (Scarlett Johansson), and Christopher Walken shows up as King Louie, the overlord of the monkey kingdom. The musical element of the film is downplayed, but still present, and "The Jungle Book" pays tribute to some of the earlier film's most beloved songs.
The film takes a few new turns as well, and one late decision in particular (made to keep the film more faithful to Kipling's books) puts a compelling interpretive spin on the story's message.
Still, most kids (and adults) will probably be too mesmerized by the effects to get too caught up in the nuances of story. Good special effects will enhance a story without upstaging it, but the movie's effects are so advanced you might find yourself losing track of the narrative.
"The Jungle Book" feels like a live-action interpretation of the old animated film, but in reality, Mowgli is about the only live-action element of the production. You'd expect the talking, interacting animals to be animated, but even the environments are computer-generated. In many films, this is a distracting detriment, but "The Jungle Book" leaves you looking for seams and being unable to find them.
Parents may note, however, that the improved animation and 3-D enhancements actually make "The Jungle Book" a little darker and scarier than might be expected, and the film might be a little too intense for very young children (and adults, depending on how susceptible you are to jump scares).
But even if your little ones have to wait a while, "The Jungle Book" is a visual leap forward with a fun story that is well worth seeing.
"The Jungle Book" is rated PG for some sequences of scary action and peril; running time: 105 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.