Neither the most ambitious ("Maleficent") nor the worst ("Alice in Wonderland") of Disney's big-budget live-action remakes of their animated canon, Jon Favreau's "The Jungle Book" is adequate, often charming but rarely inspired. As a visual effects test, it's often impressive without being imaginative. As a reimagination of the story...well, it's Disney's take on "The Jungle Book," all right, with enough standout moments to suggest a better film that might be made if it followed its instincts to color outside the lines.
You know the story: Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is raised by wolves (Lupita Nyong'o, Giancarlo Esposito) and protected by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) distrusts the "man-cub" and demands the boy's death. Mowgli is to be returned to the Man-Village, but not before befriending the fun-loving bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and going on a series of adventures.
Favreau's greatest asset as a director is his skill with actors, and "The Jungle Book" is no exception, marking a rare case where an all-star voice cast is as successful as a cadre of voice actors. Murray's smart-alecky charm and looseness makes him a perfect fit for Baloo, as does Kingsley's regal, dulcet voice does for Bagheera.
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Better still are the villains, with Scarlett Johansson's smoky timbre suiting a more seductive take on Kaa, Christohper Walken's Noo Yawk voice fitting a gangster-like King Louie, and Elba's booming menace recalling Oliver Reed's Bill Sykes more than George Sanders' sophisticated purr in the original 1967 film. Favreau has more trouble with Sethi, who's not yet up to task to carry a film that requires him to be curious, brave, inventive and mischievous all at once (he mostly just waves his arms a lot), but the vocal cast is strong enough to mostly carry the film.
Favreau is less assured as a stylist: The effects are often grand, moving with a relative photo-realism reminiscent of "Avatar." But too often he relies solely on the effects, employing a static shot/reverse shot approach between characters that kills much of the magic he's trying to evoke. There are exceptions — a dreamy transition in Kaa's hypnotic eyes, an introduction of King Louie that evokes Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now — but Favreau's camera and his treatment of the visuals are insufficiently expressive, never quite reaching the romantic heights he's aiming for.
This becomes more distracting as the film hews closer to its predecessor: There are reprises of the classic songs "The Bear Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You" that, while not entirely unwelcome, feel tossed-off. Worse, the film retains the original's rambling, episodic structure while projecting an unearned tone of seriousness. "The Jungle Book" is rarely less than pleasant, but it's caught halfway between being its own film and being the same movie from 49 years ago.