Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” like Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” has become a children’s classic thanks to abridgment. Surely few children know that the hardy adventurer Lemuel Gulliver winds up an insane recluse, or that the man-cub Mowgli destroys the human village that takes him in.
Disney’s 1967 adaptation of “The Jungle Book” figured out how and where to truncate Kipling’s narrative without completely diluting it. That strategy, along with a roster of irresistible songs (many by the Sherman brothers) and a stellar voice cast (Sebastian Cabot as the dignified panther Bagheera, Louis Prima as the antic orangutan King Louie), made “The Jungle Book” one of Disney’s liveliest and most beloved animated films.
Disney’s new version is different — darker, scarier and much more real. Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, is played by a live actor, newcomer Seth Neeli, while the jungle’s other inhabitants are computer-generated creations. These are not cartoons, but photorealistic beasts with shoulder blades that undulate under heavy fur and lungs that expand and contract. When Mowgli’s guardian, Bagheera, first speaks in Ben Kingsley’s voice, the effect is startling — it can talk! — and takes some getting used to.
Visually stunning (the 3-D might be worth the premium) and beautifully directed by Jon Favreau, “The Jungle Book” takes pains to set itself apart from the freewheeling animated film and mostly succeeds. Scarlett Johansson turns Kaa the python into a femme fatale; Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) is less a bohemian than a scam artist; King Louie is now a psychotic behemoth with the voice of Christopher Walken. The low, resonant rumble of Idris Elba turns the tiger Shere Khan into a truly spine-tingling villain.
For all that, “The Jungle Book” can’t fully wipe the slate clean. It refuses to part with the best 1967 songs — Baloo’s “The Bare Necessities,” Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You” — which means this intense adventure film is also a kinda-sorta musical. Most crucially, the movie ends with a narrative cop-out that robs Kipling’s story of its emotional power and hard-won wisdom.
“The Jungle Book” still works as spectacular entertainment, but it came thisclose to being a whole new Disney classic.