The career of writer/director Jon Favreau is a roller-coaster ride of highs ("Elf," "Iron Man," "Chef") and lows ("Couples Retreat," "Iron Man 2," "Cowboys & Aliens"). However, he's proved to be an inventive storyteller with a passion for making adventures the entire family can enjoy. The latest, Disney's "The Jungle Book," is Favreau's masterpiece.
Based on Rudyard Kipling's book, but more specifically on Disney's 1967 animated classic, the fantasy adventure follows the young man-cub Mowgli (winsome newcomer Neel Sethi) who, as a toddler, was found in the jungle by the wise panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley, all rumbling regality), who entrusted his care to the wolf pack. But as Mowgli grew, so did the fury of the man-hating, man-eating tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba, snarling his way into being one of Disney's most terrifying villains). Realizing Mowgli's life is at risk, Bagheera tries to lead the boy back to the man village, where its red flower (fire) will keep the blood-thirsty tiger at bay. Along the way, Mowgli meets a wild cast of characters, from the singing bear Baloo (Bill Murray) to a mesmerizing python (Scarlett Johansson as a sharply gender-swapped Kaa), to a power-hungry orangutan (a campy Christopher Walken as King Louie).
It's a story you know, but told with such heart and awe-inspiring visuals you'll feel like a kid again. I marveled at how Favreau constructed a thriving jungle full populated by creatures full of character. As Mowgli makes his way through the jungle, the production design shifts in textures, light, flora and fauna so that the journey is clear and enveloping. The brambles and vines of Kaa's hunting ground are cool and sleek, mirroring her methods and slithering hide. The sun-dappled domain of Baloo is full of color and flowers, while King Louie's territory is carved out in abandoned ruins of a long-forgotten city. There, the monarch ape sits amid shiny booty and makes offers that are difficult to refuse.
Even more remarkable are "The Jungle Book's" animal stars. When I heard the live-action adaptation would feature a real child surrounded by CG animals, I expected it to be riddled with the kind of weight and texture issues that disorient and challenge the audience's suspension of disbelief. After all, the tech that allows for photo-real animals is still pretty new. Much of it was pioneered for 2012's Oscar-winning wonder "Life of Pi," which featured only one tiger, not a jungle brimming with animals. But Favreau's team has built a world that's beyond remarkable -- it's instantly historic.
This next-level blending of practical and visual effects creates a setting an audience can easily tumble into full-bodied. And this immersive experience is further aided by the film's remarkable 3D. Layers upon layers of depth are offered so you feel the grandeur and the threat of the wild around Mowgli. This masterfully faked reality makes the film's characters, stakes and battles all the more thrilling. When animals clash in battle over the fate of the man-cub, the sound design booms with blows that will rattle you. When Shere Khan springs out of hiding at Mowgli, the in-your-face 3D will pitch you back into your seat. "The Jungle Book" is almost as immersive as the first-person action experiment "Hardcore Henry," but with a far richer story.
The star-studded voice cast brings new life and depth to characters we've known for decades. Kingsley laces in grief over losing an adopted ward along with Bagheera's wearied warnings. Murray brings his barbed slacker charm to Baloo's banter. Lupita Nyong'o and Giancarlo Esposito offer a mix of resilience and tenderness in Mowgli's wolf pack parents. With his signature kookiness, Walken is a bit of a distraction as Louie, halfheartedly speak-singing "I Wanna to Be Like You." But Elba steals the show, relishing each of Shere Khan's roars and thinly veiled threats with a sinister smile you can hear. Between this, "Zootopia" and the "Thor" movies, it seems Disney wants Elba in everything, and I'm all for that.
This adventure is a visual feast with some of the best voice performances of the past decade. But all this greatness and spectacle could be for naught if "The Jungle Book" failed to find a strong leading boy. This marks Sethi's feature-film debut, and although the kid offers the occasional stilted line, he is, overall, a wonder. Arguing with Bagheera over the unfairness of being booted from the jungle, he seems like any kid bickering about bedtime. Even surrounded by so much strangeness, Sethi allows us to instantly connect to Mowgli with his authenticity and affability. We're hooked from an opening scene where he races through the jungle, eyes wide with excitement, feet fast and efficient as they push him up branches and through bushes. And Favreau keeps it real by striping him in scratches, patching him with dirt, giving him the look of a boy who spends his days tumbling through trees.
"The Jungle Book" is sensational. It's a fun and rollicking adventure that offers scares, laughs, tenderness and thrills. Favreau has raised the bar on Disney's live-action adaptations, and delivered his greatest film yet.
"The Jungle Book" opens Friday.