Jon Favreau has his passion projects, and then he has his passion projects. Take his last film, “Chef”, a fairly light under-the-radar dramedy with the writer/director in the starring role as a sought after culinary wizard who departs from a trendy high-end restaurant to open a food truck. Now look at “The Jungle Book”, an impossibly great big-budget knockout that already has a sequel in the works. Favreau has had success in the mainstream directing the first two “Iron Man” films, the driving force behind the entire “Avengers” franchise, but “The Jungle Book” and its only human star, Neel Sethi, blow it all that out of the water. Hiss if you will, but the 1967 animated feature is one of my least favorite Disney films of that era. Now Rudyard Kipling’s classic book gets the live-action treatment, with Sethi as man-cub Mowgli, Ben Kingsley voicing his panther guardian Bagheera and Idris Elba as the fierce tiger villain Shere Khan. It takes a minute to get used to the animals speaking, at first a contrast to just how real the CGI looks, but seems completely natural before you know it. It’s not long before the jungle becomes a completely absorbing, if surreal, place. All that said, perhaps the most unexpected part of this spectacle is that despite it’s realistic, sometimes scary tone, the film preserves the cartoon’s two most precious musical numbers—a Sethi/Murray duet of “The Bare Necessities”, and Christopher Walken as gigantic ape King Louie performing “I Wanna Be Like You”. The ape seeks fire—or the Red Flower, as it’s referred to among the jungle creatures—the same element for which Shere Khan seeks revenge against humans. With both of those characters in mind, the voice casting couldn’t be more spot-on: Elba is thoroughly intimidating as the tiger (probably too much so for some younger audiences), and Walken channels his “King of New York” animus to generate the enormous simian mobster. With Bill Murray as bear friend Baloo, there’s never a dull moment—heck, the man made “Garfield” watchable—the main conduit between Sethi and the digital world that surrounds him. The newcomer does an amazing job, and I won’t even attempt to analyze the technical feat that he’s a part of in this completely immersive experience. Other voices include Lupita Nyong’o as the mother wolf who raised Mowgli, and Scarlett Johansson as the iconic python who contributes brief exposition into the Mowgli/Shere Khan rivalry as written by Justin Marks. A sequel and live-action version of “The Lion King” are on their way.
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