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New 'Jungle Book' feels real

Despite being a mostly digital creation.


DISNEY'S 'JUNGLE': Neel Sethi (as Mowgli) and gigantopithecus King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken) meet.
  • DISNEY'S 'JUNGLE': Neel Sethi (as Mowgli) and gigantopithecus King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken) meet.

The earliest Disney features formula was absolutely brilliant, when you look back at it. By animating beloved fables, fairy tales and other works in the public domain, they locked in kids and parents on the cheap. The 1967 version of "The Jungle Book," which you watched as a kid and frickin' loved, drew from the copyright-expired 1890s Rudyard Kipling stories that became free to adapt in the mid-1950s. It's relatively young for such a timeless story, and the challenge in adapting it in 2016 is to make a feral-orphan wilderness tale convincing, even as it's rendered with heaps of CGI.

What you'll find in the newest of "The Jungle Book" iterations, the one that just swung into cineplexes, is something that strives for timelessness and, at times, actually manages to feel old. As long as there are little boys, or people who remember being little boys, there's going to be a market for stories where a kid, Mowgli (Neel Sethi, the rare live being in this film), has buddies who are bears and panthers and wolves, and there's only so much anyone can possibly screw up. Here, you have a director in Jon Favreau, who knows dude stuff ("Swingers" 4eva, "Iron Man" holla), and a pretty fantastic set of digitized animals. It's live-action populated with animals animated to the brink of real, with great talking monkeys and antelopes and rhinos and elephants and the rest of the menagerie that, if you were a boy and lived like an animal in the wild, you would call over for fruit and cold water and bull sessions every so often.

Bounding through the forest with your adopted wolf siblings ought to be enough for any single boy, but as this is "The Jungle Book," you know there has to be a problem, in the form of a tiger. Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) sniffs out Mowgli at a watering hole and tells his wolf family, in no unclear terms, that he wants the boy dead and that he'll be by to make sure it happens. Mowgli later hears the wolves arguing about whether to keep him around; he decides to keep the tiger away by striking out on his own. The sage black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), who found and brought a toddler Mowgli to the wolves in the first place, comes along, aiming to see him safely to a human village. Mowgli thinks of himself as a wolf, but without claws or wings or fangs, everyone knows he's a canape for the big cat.

What follows is a mirrored revenge story. Shere Khan, we learn, disfigured by man's red fire, has reason to stalk Mowgli. And events eventually dictate that Mowgli return to face Shere Khan, irate. In between, though, we get a gentle story of discovering your talents. Mowgli's gifts with braiding vines and rigging little pulleys make him a formidable little inventor in the forest. The Bill Murray-voiced bear Baloo recognizes this, and puts Mowgli immediately to work snaring honey off an unreachable cliff. And King Louie, an impossibly large orangutan (Christopher Walken), tries to ensnare the boy into a jungle-domination scheme before, per the story you'd expect, everything falls straight apart.

This you can give "The Jungle Book," if nothing else: It doesn't lose sight of its targets. It's packed with great moments of peril, and hinges on real friendship. The animals are rendered a size or two toward the large to shrink Mowgli by comparison and, yes, to give them the outsized dimensions fit for a child's imagination. They're also chatty and likeable. Baloo, in particular, wants to be your friend. He's a bear. You're a boy. You're bobbing down a river; you're whacking honeycombs off cliffs; you're clambering around trees. Where are your complaints?

These are the simple, bare necessities of life, and not even $175 million of computer graphics and celebrity voices can distract you from such abiding pleasures.

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