‘The Jungle Book’ Review: Mowgli’s Talking Nature Documentary Adventure Turns The Original Movie Inside Out

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The realistic animals of 'The Jungle Book.' Disney

When the waters get too low, Peace Rock is exposed and the Water Truce begins. All the animals gather to drink — mice alongside vipers, chital and hog deer unafraid of crocodiles and wolves. Many of the wolves are pups and they’re fluffy as dandelion heads. You can’t pet them.

Nature documentaries like Monkey Kingdom and Hidden Kingdoms have blurred the line between narrative and nonfiction, using CG and elaborate compositing for characterful animal storytelling. Now Disney has met them on the other side of the divide, releasing a Jungle Book that achieves an astounding level of furry lifelikeness.

It’d be easy to describe The Jungle Book in a way that makes it sound duplicative of the 1967 Disney animated movie. Sure, there’s some additional material from the original Rudyard Kipling stories, but it’s still “Bare Necessities,” paw paw trees, King Louie and Shere Khan. Except the actual viewing experience, mediated through real-enough tigers, bears, and gigantopithecus’ instead of painted cel creatures, is a radically inverted experience.

Instead of a jungle of goofy buddies, The Jungle Book is populated with real menace. Baloo’s gentle Tom Sawyer routine —tricking Mowgli into honey-collecting—is backed with claws. Ben Kingsley’s Bagheera has serene wisdom and a ferocious prowl.

This makes Disney’s new jungle a more harrowing and far different experience, Mowgli’s journey taking on a shade of violence, danger and hardship more familiar to safari adventures like The Naked Prey or Congo.

None of this is unintentional; Jon Favreau exhibits the same control over the adventure as he did with Iron Man or the under-appreciated Zathura . Some sequences are dark deconstructions of the original moments, especially a deranged encounter with King Louie (Christopher Walken), whose King Kong proportions and Colonel Kurtz manners transform “I Wanna Be Like You” into a monster’s demented fantasy.

But nothing tops Shere Khan. Combine Idris Elba’s purr with a big cat unafraid to plop in a wolf’s den like a sunning tabby and you get one of the more menacing movie villains in recent history. He moves like a real tiger, but plots like a deposed tyrant. There’s death in the jungle and The Jungle Book is unafraid of it.

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Watch out, Mowgli! Photo: Disney

So too is Neel Sethi’s Mowgli, who brightens the inherent ‘“red in tooth and claw”’ vibe with a playful inventiveness and high spirits. This is still a movie for children, so while Mowgli’s body reflects cuts and stings, he’s never terrified by giant snakes, stampedes or tigers.

Far more than a technical achievement, The Jungle Book feels like document from a different reality, one where our communion with the animals is complete, their motives comprehensible. An innovative and frequently breath-taking adventure, The Jungle Book may be a remake, but it’s still wholly original.

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