Let’s get one thing out of the way: The latest version of “The Jungle Book,” shot mainly in a warehouse in Los Angeles with green screen, is visually stunning. None of the CGI seams are showing as you make your way through an incredibly colorful and eye-popping rainforest. This is one of the rare occasions when it’s worth shelling out a few extra bucks for 3D.
If you know “The Jungle Book,” you know the story goes all the way back to Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 book. A boy known as a “man-cub” named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) roams the jungle with his father figure Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), who’s a black panther, and a pack of wolves.
While fleeing the clutches of vicious tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), Mowgli ends up in the care of a laid-back, singing bear named Baloo (Bill Murray). At first, Baloo keeps Mowgli around to get him honey, but then the two form an inseparable bond.
One of the film’s strengths is that it doesn’t feel the need to waste a ton of time on a backstory many already know. These characters hold such a high place that it feels like we are just visiting old friends.
It helps that each member of the cast perfectly serves their animal counterparts. It seems like the only direction Jon Favreau gave to Bill Murray and Christopher Walken (who plays King Louie like a mob boss) is, “Act like Bill Murray and Christopher Walken.” And the groundbreaking motion capture allows every animal to feel completely human.
The real scene-stealer, though, is Elba. He turns Shere Khan into one of cinema’s most memorable recent villains. Khan is supposed to be king of the jungle, but he acts more like a dictator. Elba gives him an unpredictable air; you’re never sure how dangerous his next move will be. This version of Shere Khan doesn’t feel like the kind of villain you’d see in most Disney movies.
It feels like less attention was paid to the story, however. “The Jungle Book” clocks in at under two hours, which is rare for a blockbuster these days. This is both a benefit and a disadvantage. There are moments when it feels like the film pulls out just as things are getting really good.
For example, in one scene Shere Khan shows up in the middle of the night and comforts the wolf cubs. This is also a way for him to threaten Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). It’s a powerful moment that is terrifying in its calmness, but this side of the villain is never explored much again.
Meanwhile, Baloo and Mowgli’s close relationship is mainly explored in a brief montage, but it is meant to be the heart of the film.
When the film does stop to look around, it produces some extraordinary moments.
At first, I was worried that “The Jungle Book” would end up like “Avatar,” in which striking visuals don’t actually say much. But then you get a glimpse of the elephant march. This moment, which looks like something from a nature documentary, is downright ethereal. The added mythology that the elephants are seen as gods by the other animals adds gravitas to the scene.
After “Batman v Superman,” the idea of a short tentpole movie sounds great, but “The Jungle Book” could have earned the right to go longer if it provided more moments like this.
“The Jungle Book” feels like an interesting crossroads in reboot culture: It takes a well-worn story and energizes it with the best technology has to offer. It’s like everything and nothing you’ve ever seen before: a spectacle that is both imperfect and worth your money.
Hopefully, for the sequel, which is already in the works, the filmmakers will actually let this beautifully realized world breathe a bit.