Here's about as convincing an argument as I can imagine for the existence of the modern Hollywood blockbuster. Disney and Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book reinvigorates an oft-told tale with star power, technology and calculated charm. It's been billed as a live-action remake (it's too good to be called a “reboot”) of the 1967 Walt Disney animated classic based on Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 stories. Of course, Disney has already given us a live-action version in 1994, with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, an Indiana Jones–ified take that bore little resemblance to either the animated film or the original tales. And perhaps the best Jungle Book out there might still be Alexander and Zoltan Korda's magical and odd 1942 film starring the young Indian actor Sabu; that one was even less faithful to Kipling. Over the years, there’s been a Russian adaptation, an anime series, a Chuck Jones cartoon, plus a brace of sequels and sorta-sequels. Oh, and apparently Warner Bros. is at this very moment working on its own iteration, due in 2018.
In other words, there’s no real need for another Jungle Book, which makes this new one's job even harder. The story itself isn't too dramatically different from the familiar Disney animated film. Our hero Mowgli (Neel Sethi, delightfully vivacious and chatty) is a young boy who’s been raised by a family of wolves ever since the black panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) found him abandoned in the woods. Living as a wolf isn't easy: Mowgli grows up slowly, can’t resist the temptation to use tools and has to make into instinct the things that wolves just know, like never to stray from the pack. Togetherness is the wolves’ mantra: They gather to recite the Law of the Jungle (“The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack”) in the evening, and Bagheera’s voice-over tells us, “If he was going to survive, he was going to need a people — a people to protect him.” That’s not people, but a people. Superheroes be damned, this is a communitarian blockbuster.
That communal impulse is threatened when loner tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) arrives and demands that Mowgli be turned over to him, or else. The tiger's vendetta is personal: “Does my face not remind you of what a grown man can do?” he sneers, displaying his scarred mug. To protect the wolves, Bagheera agrees to take Mowgli back to a distant human village. Along the way, Mowgli runs into Kaa the python (Scarlett Johansson), Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) and King Louie (Christopher Walken), a gigantopithecus lording over a small army of monkeys.
In keeping with the spirit of Kipling, the structure is largely episodic. That choice could result in tedium onscreen, but it works here, giving us ample opportunity to luxuriate in the cast's star personas. Murray’s bear is a riff on his usual scheming layabout; Johansson’s snake vamps it up as she slithers and hypnotizes; and Walken gets to be a goofily intimidating mob boss. (Louie was a character invented for the 1967 Disney version, and was memorably voiced in that film by Louis Prima.) We even get some songs: Walken reprises a revised version of the classic “I Wanna Be Like You” and Murray of “The Bare Necessities.”
But the true wonder of The Jungle Book lies in what might be called its very blockbuster-ness — the way it fully immerses us in this world, utilizing state-of-the-art effects (the talking, emoting animals look amazing and real) and juggling levity, menace and sweep. As a director, Favreau has over the years proven himself adept at staying close to the action while still finding brief moments of pictorial grace; that’s one reason that his Iron Man set the tone for the Marvel movie-verse.
He does something similar here. As Mowgli runs through dense fields and forests, the camera often stays so close to the boy’s point of view that we don’t always see what’s pursuing him — a classic tactic Favreau and others probably learned from its most brilliant practitioner, Steven Spielberg. But the film has a stirring, storybook grandeur as well, particularly in its rhapsodic portraits of animal togetherness, which in turn helps sell all that dialogue about unity and the power of the pack.
These franchise movies usually have to be all things to all viewers: fun for the kids, gritty for the grown-ups, snarky for the teens. Very often, that results in an inchoate sprawl of competing tones and set pieces. But The Jungle Book is fast and light. It manages to be just scary enough to make us feel the danger of solitude in the middle of a massive jungle, but never indulgent or gratuitous. At one pivotal point, Shere Khan kills a major character by biting into and then quickly casting the body off a cliff. It happens swiftly, suddenly and without any melodrama: You can imagine that the filmmakers and the studio don’t want to upset younger viewers too much by focusing too much on death. Yet the offhand cruelty of this character’s speedy dispatch has a real sting, too. If only all blockbusters could be this exciting, engrossing and beautiful.