NEW YORK – Disney's "The Jungle Book" has dethroned "Avatar" as cinema's best-looking 3D live-action-CGI hybrid extravaganza.
With "The Jungle Book," director Jon Favreau ("Iron Man") has raised the bar on seamless integration of live action and CGI. 3D is an over-used gimmick that rarely adds quality to any film, but "The Jungle Book" is an exception. The marriage of natural and digital landscapes, combined with jaw-dropping realistic-looking animals, is an incredible visual feat – and feast – and 3D surprisingly provides some fantastic depth of field here. Favreau packs every frame with vibrant color, motion and life that it's so very hard to distinguish the real from the fake.
For those unfamiliar with the original animated film based on Rudyard Kipling's books, Mowgli is a boy orphaned in an Indian jungle. Raised by a panther and wolves, Mowgli becomes a creature of the outdoors and lives and abides by jungle law. When tiger Shere Khan discovers a 'man-cub' living among the wolf pack, he threatens the stability and safety of the jungle. He gives Mowgli an ultimatum: Return to the human world or become dinner. The panther Bagheera relinquishes his fatherly role and sets upon a journey with the boy to return him to his original home, finding one adventure after another along the way.
Apart from a few quick flashback sequences, Neel Sethi (Mowgli) is the only live-action human in the film. Working in a mostly digital world among CGI characters must not be the easiest job for an actor – especially a child actor – but Sethi comes across as a natural with a standout, exuberant performance.
The voice cast, however, is "Jungle's" backbone. Bill Murray (Baloo), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa), Lupita Nyong'o (Raksha), Idris Elba (Shere Khan) and Christopher Walken (King Louie) bring A-list talent and wonderfully flesh out this visually-stunning world. Murray's levity as Baloo cuts through the action with comedic precision. Baloo has always been one of the most beloved animated characters in Disney's lexicon and Murray's portrayal reinforces that.
Scarlett Johansson as the snake Kaa is the ultimate temptress. Her slow, seductive drawl adds to the massive python's menace, creating the most unsettling and frightening scene in the movie. Afraid of snakes? Scarlett won't abate those fears.
Two notable standouts are Idris Elba and Christopher Walken. Elba skirts George Sanders' original drollness and gives a sinister, almost terrifying performance. While he is no Louis Prima, Christopher Walken is a fantastic alternative for playing King Louie. His voice booms and gives Dolby Atmos a workout as he threatens vulnerable Mowgli, but then eases back and steals the show with the most Walken-esque rendition of "I Wanna Be Like You."
There's little to nitpick in this nearly perfect family adventure, but a weakness does poke through in the story's formatting. Like a book, the story is very much segmented into chapter-like scenes. After the initial setup and Mowgli's journey to the human village begins, the young lad enters one self-contained character-specific scene after another. This rigidity and lack of a fluid flow of story and character could very easily become tiresome by the third segment if the momentum of the action and smart editing hadn't already claimed your attention.
John Debney (Oscar-nominated composer of "Passion of the Christ") plants his best work yet in this jungle, incorporating a few of the classic Sherman brothers' tunes from the 1967 original, as well as Terry Gilkyson's popular "Bare Necessities." Debney's gorgeous score is as important as the seamless CGI in enveloping the audience in Favreau's sumptuous jungle world. Debney's score is lush, stylish and inclusive, using the full extent of the orchestra to bring Mowgli, Baloo and the menacing Shere Khan to life.
Both kids (not too young, though) and adults should be swept away by Favreau's adaptation. With an impeccable mix of live action, CGI and a stampede of adventure, "The Jungle Book" proves Disney is once again king of the jungle.
Walt Disney Pictures. MPAA rating: PG. Running time: 1 hour and 51 minutes.