'The Jungle Book'

It takes a tremendous amount of skill to force people to see something new in a beloved classic. Director Jon Favreau has shown plenty of skill over the years, and his live-action remake of The Jungle Book is dripping with polish. Favreau’s take on Disney’s 1967 animated classic is the second in a presumably endless line of such reimaginings, following last year’s Cinderella. As with many things Disney, what seems like an impossibly bad idea on paper is turning out just fine, thanks -- or even better. These fairy tales with real, live actors didn’t work for anyone, until ole’ Mickey Mouse came along of course. Now, we have an emerging trend.

Much of that is down to putting this sort of work in the right hands. Favreau follows Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair. Both are immensely talented. Both were right for their respective projects. In Favreau’s case, he is a crowd-pleaser supreme. I would agree with the general sentiment, put forth recently in Slate, that he is hard to pin down stylistically. If I had to try myself, I would say that he loves his protagonists -- all his characters, really, but especially his protagonists -- in a way that surpasses many other directors.

That love rubs off, doesn’t it? From Mikey in Swingers to Buddy in Elf to Tony Stark in Iron Man, and all the way down now to Mowgli, Bagheera and Baloo in The Jungle Book, Favreau’s affection for his main characters is infectious.

I’d argue that that infectiousness is downright critical in this particular film, a visual dazzler with heavy, heavy doses of CGI (it was shot entirely in Los Angeles) that could have so easily been superficially impressive and utterly hollow at its core.

There is a deep, gooey center here — one that reminds us why we so love these characters still, almost 50 years later, and yet also helps us to see them in new ways. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is still Mowgli — precocious and stubborn and wildly optimistic. But Favreau, along with screenwriter Justin Marks, finds something else in him: incredible fragility and irrepressible cleverness. Baloo (Bill Murray) is still the lovable best friend everybody wishes they had, but he’s also a self-interested schemer. King Louie (Christopher Walken) still hungers for knowledge, only here there’s also a bit of jungle mafioso mixed in. Even Shere Khan (Idris Elba), villain though he remains, seems like, well, less of a cartoon. It’s not so much that these things weren’t there before, just that Favreau manages to draw them out differently.

These are the things that keep us eagerly following Mowgli on his labyrinthine journey back to the man village. The spectacle along the way is what makes The Jungle Book so memorable.  It’s a bit unsettling for me personally — champion of practical effects — to wrap my head around the fact that so much of this film took place on a sound stage and in front of a green screen. The uncanny valley is shallower than ever, folks. It is flattened by an intoxicating encounter between Mowgli and the boa constrictor Kaa (Scarlett Johannson) and the intimidating size of King Louie. But it is also laid waste by the slouch and waggle of Baloo. His movements are natural and intentional — he moves like a sloth bear should and he has the body shape that Baloo should.

Technical prowess of this magnitude isn’t much without a good story and good characters. But a good story and good characters aren’t really the reason we go to the movies. I won’t sit here and tell you that The Jungle Book is a perfect film. Indeed, seeing what Favreau did with these characters left me wanting a little more. You can only go so far outside the box with a corporate monolith like Disney, and I would have liked to see Favreau go a little bit farther.

The Jungle Book goes far enough, though, to be richly enjoyable. That’s a Bare Necessity at the theater, isn’t it?