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Jon Favreau creates lavish version of the Kipling classic

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When The Walt Disney Co. made its animated musical version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book in 1967, it created a cuddly and accessible distillation of Kipling’s work for the generations that followed, who often had a hard time separating Wolfgang Reitherman’s distinctive hardline visuals and the Terry Gilkyson/Sherman Brothers’ songs from Kipling’s original fables.

Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) clearly recognizes that cognitive fusion, because his new version of The Jungle Book elegantly finds the sweet spot between the two classics.

From the moment Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) begins his run through the jungle, Favreau sets about depicting a believable rainforest society in which wolves, panthers, pythons and elephants live together in relative détente.

Rescued by Bagheera the black panther (voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley) and raised by wolves Akela and Raksha (Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita N’yongo), Mowgli strives for acceptance within the animal population but must contend with his human impulses toward individuality.

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Ultimately, those impulses put him at odds with the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who insists that Mowgli be delivered to him by the animal kingdom under penalty of bloody tyranny.

When Mowgli escapes Shere Khan during an exhilarating stampede sequence, The Jungle Book begins to lovingly incorporate elements of animated film, particularly Bill Murray’s performance as Baloo the bear. Baloo is a loveable layabout in the classic Murray mold and finds excuses for extreme leisure at every turn and employing the boy as an expert food finder.

These days in the sun eventually lead to Mowgli’s run-in with King Louie (Christopher Walken), a gigantopithecus ruling over an inner-jungle primate kingdom like an enormous Colonel Kurtz.

This is when Gilkyson’s “Bare Necessities” and Robert and Richard Sherman’s “I Wanna Be Like You” get showcased as a sweet tip of the hat to the earlier Disney film. They make sense in the film’s lively second act, and since King Louie was not a Kipling creation in the first place, it all fits nicely, as if their absence would be a serious error.

Beyond the story, Favreau’s Jungle Book is nothing short of visually breathtaking and could not exist without Ang Lee’s 2012 adaptation of Life of Pi, which raised the bar for photorealistic depictions of CG animals.

The fluidity of movement, the precise shifts of fur and musculature and the animals’ seamless interactions with Mowgli and the plants around them take the viewer on a deep dive into a densely populated uncanny valley.

But the technical achievement would matter little if it weren’t powering some genuinely affecting work by Elba, Kingsley, N’yongo and especially Murray, who all prove adept at giving their CG characters depth and believability — at least as believable as talking animals can be. It all takes The Jungle Book out of the realm of the cynical rehashes that seemingly hit theaters on a monthly basis.

This film feels like a genuine effort to deepen and improve on the 1967 version, and while there will always be childhood affection and attachment to Disney’s animated version, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks largely succeed.

In recent years, Disney has released a series of live-action remakes of its animated films with varying degrees of success, ranging from the horrific 2010 versions of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Alice in Wonderland to more nuanced takes such as last year’s Cinderella.

But Favreau’s The Jungle Book feels like a labor of love, one that will please both the Kipling faithful and the ones who first saw Baloo walking on two legs.

Print headline: Jungle love, Director Jon Favreau creates a lavish, tastefully computer-generated version of the Kipling classic.

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