The Jungle Book: 3D review: Kipling’s stripling comes of age

Lisa Miller
At The Movies
In this image released by Disney, Shere Khan the tiger, voiced by Idris Elba, appears in a scene from, "The Jungle Book."
Courtesy / Disney | Disney


B (***)

Directed By Jon Favreau

Starring Neel Sethi

Voices of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o

Disney, Rated PG, Fantasy, 107 minutes

Director Jon Favreau creates a 21st century version of “Jungle Book” for Disney Studios. Adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s stories, the story is set in the Indian jungle and centers around the adventures of 10-year-old Mowgli (Neel Sethi), an Indian orphan raised by wolves. Mowgli is living with his pack when nefarious tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) demands they turn him over, and he threatens to kill pack members one by one unless his demand is met.

Realizing Shere plans to kill the lad, the pack becomes divided between protecting themselves or the boy from this fearsome predator. Since Mowgli is a sweet child caring for all living things, is he destined to grow up to be Tarzan? Oh, that’s a different film series set in Africa (the similarities are striking). Here in India, young Mowgli lends a helping hand to any animal in need. It seems premature to kill this “man-cub” simply because he will one day grow into a man.

Mowgli’s backstory of being orphaned when Shere killed the boy’s father is told on the fly, but meanwhile,the child has an ally in kindly panther Bagheera (voice of Ben Kingsley). Fearing that Mowgli can not be protected in the jungle, Bagheera insists that he can guide Mowgli to the safety of a nearby man-village.

Bagheera, Shere Khan, friendly bear Baloo (Bill Murray), a giant anaconda (Scarlett Johansson), along with huge primate King Louie (Walken), Louie’s ape minions, a herd of elephants, the wolves and many other animals are lovingly created in photo-realistic CGI that includes striking locations depicting Mowgli’s world.

Considerably more frightening than most family friendly films, the movie benefits from being less moralistic, although the messages (extolling the blended family and the importance of friendship) are there. However, both Mowgli and Baloo (the latter serving as comic relief) frequently feel out of place. Mowgli seems oblivious to the dangers he faces, while actor Neel Sethi is wholly unconvincing as a jungle-raised child able to scamper up trees and climb sheer cliffs.

Baloo, whose concern is initially obtaining the endless bellyfuls of honey Mowgli is able to provide, is suddenly, and incredibly, transformed into a Mowgli-lover (based on the boy’s companionable traits). Baloo sets his honey cravings aside in order to follow the lad and Mowgli’s panther protector, whatever the danger. Yet, fun-loving Baloo (who sings “The Bare Necessities”), never comes across as sufficiently ferocious or focused to fill the protector role.

Admittedly, these complaints are just so much nitpicking since the action of “Jungle Book” is generally riveting (and therefore too frightening for children under 9). Admirably, “Jungle Book” highlights conflicts arising from human activities that occur in and around wildlife habitat. Audiences can’t help but empathize with Mowgli’s desire to choose the animals he cares for over the easy, yet darker side of being human.

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