Director Jon Favreau conjures up a magical place to get lost in. And that's just one of the dazzling delights in The Jungle Book, a visual marvel that cuts a direct path to the heart. Favreau, the director of films as diverse as Elf, Iron Man and Chef, has managed to blend what's best in the jungle stories of Rudyard Kipling and the 1967 animated Disney version into something unique and unforgettable. See it in reach-out-and-touch 3D if you can, and prepare to be wowed.
Ready-for-anything newcomer Neel Sethi — the only human in a cast of talking computer-generated animals, plays Mowgli, a 10-year-old man-cub. After the murder of his father, Mowgli is found in the jungle of India by the panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) and left in the care of wolf parents, Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). A water shortage has persuaded different species of animals to come together in peace and sharing. The truce is disrupted by the hostile Shere Khan, a Bengal tiger growled by Idris Elba in a voice guaranteed to induce fear and trembling. Blinded in one eye by fire, the "red flower" that the tiger blames on man, Shere Khan demands that the wolfpack turn over Mowgli to him for certain death. After a tearful farewell to his mother (Nyong'o speaks the role with touching gravity), Mowgli — with Bagheera keeping a watchful eye — sets out to connect with a tribe of humans he's never known.
Scary, yes, but also thrilling. That's because Favreau, screenwriter Justin Marks, cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix) and a miraculous special-effects team have made everything so vivid and vibrantly alive. Image and sound design reach new heights as Mowgli moves into the darkness. The mouth movements of the creatures, from ape to turtle, are appealingly natural in the manner of the talking pig in Babe. Be on the lookout for Kaa, a giant python so seductively hissed by Scarlett Johansson that it takes a while to realize she's just warming up Mowgli up for the kill.
Just when we get hungry for laughs, there's Baloo, a lazy hustler of a bear given voice by the incomparable Bill Murray. Baloo helps restore the good-natured, hibernating, honey-slurping, fat-slob sauciness to a mammal that took a hit for turning Leonardo DiCaprio into a chew toy in The Revenant. Murray is pricelessly funny, especially dueting with Mowgli on "The Bare Necessities," the Oscar-nominated ditty from the Disney cartoon. We also get a song from Christopher Walken who croons "I Wan'na Be Like You" to Mowgli in the role of King Louie, a gigantopithecus who rivals Kong's role as king of the jungle. No one combines mirth and menace like Walken, whose looks begin to fuse with Louie's to uncanny effect.
The Jungle Book weaves its way to a happy ending without getting dragged down in the mire of silliness and soppy sentiment. Favreau earns giggles and sniffles through the warm humor he brings to the story. The natural bounce in Sethi's performance is echoed in the film. There's nothing cynical about Favreau's approach to the material. You get the feeling that he's having as much fun as we are. Working far from the jungle in a building in downtown Los Angeles, Favreau and his VFX team have built a fantasy world to rival James Cameron's in Avatar and Ang Lee's in Life of Pi. Favreau's Jungle Book fills us with something rare in movies today — a sense of wonder.