"The Jungle Book" is the kind of family film calculated to make even those without families wish they had one to take along.
By turns sweetly amusing and surprisingly unnerving, crammed with story, song and computer-generated visual splendors, it's such a model of modern crowd-pleasing entertainment that it brings to mind a celebrated quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald about filmmakers who were "able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads."
Fitzgerald was thinking about studio heads, specifically men like MGM boy-wonder Irving Thalberg, but it seems to fit what director Jon Favreau ("Iron Man" and the beloved "Elf") has done here. Making a film like "Jungle Book" go down as easily as this one does requires keeping any number of factors in balance to ensure they add up to an audience-friendly spectacle.
Based on the celebrated 1894 story collection by Rudyard Kipling that details the exploits of an Indian boy named Mowgli, raised by wolves and thus able to speak with animals, "The Jungle Book" has been filmed numerous times, starting with a 1942 effort starring the redoubtable Sabu.
The favorite of modern viewers, however, was Disney's 1967 animated version, a genial pleasure that featured eight marvelous original songs. The key challenge Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks faced and met was nodding to that cheerful version while giving the new one the kind of tension and jeopardy that contemporary family films seem to insist on.
The other challenge, also well met, was to create a simultaneously believable yet fantastical jungle world (over 100,000 photographs were taken in India and used for reference) where credible, photorealistic animals talked and negotiated among themselves like so many ambassadors to the United Nations. Only funnier.
Photographed by Bill Pope ("The Matrix) and overseen by veteran visual-effects supervisor Robert Legato, the large number of computer-generated species underline the obvious: This film is a tribute to, and would not have been possible without, the latest effects technology, up to and including motion capture and digitally built environments.
Adding to the effectiveness of the prominent animals everyone remembers — including Bagheera, the solemn panther; Shere Khan, the terrifying Bengal tiger; and of course Baloo, the conniving but fun-centric bear — is the spectacular voice casting that has become a Disney trademark, allowing each creature to be all it should be and even a little bit more.
It's Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) who serves as narrator and, in fact, begins the story by bringing an all-alone human baby he finds in the jungle to a family of wolves, led by father Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o), to be raised.
Though the boy Mowgli tries his hardest to be as fast and agile as a wolf cub, the film's opening chase sequence shows this is simply not happening. His wolf family loves him anyway, and he joins them in solemnly reciting the Law of the Jungle: "The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack."
Conversely, the only areas where Mowgli excels, situations that involve things like working with tools, are forbidden to the boy by the severe Bagheera because "tricks are not the wolf way."
Getting the role of the boy Mowgli, the only human actor visible on screen, is young Neel Sethi, an active lad who had never acted before but was chosen out of some 2,000 who auditioned. Sethi was given parkour training to enhance his nature athleticism, and puppeteers from Jim Henson's Creature Shop were employed to impersonate his CGI costars and give him something tangible to act against.
"The Jungle Book" begins with what's called a water truce, a timeout called during a drought that enables all animals to gather at a water hole without fear of being eaten by larger, more predatory types.
Unfortunately, one of the animals that shows up is the dreaded Shere Khan (sinisterly voiced by Idris Elba), who announces, for reasons to be revealed, that the "man-cub" is on his hit list and that he will return to take Mowgli's life once the truce is over.
Bagheera hopes to save Mowgli by taking him to a man village, but the headstrong boy ("a 'Dennis the Menace' type," says Favreau) resists. That, plus his naiveté, leads to encounters that put Mowgli in all kinds of jeopardy.
Most hypnotic, both literally and figuratively, is the massive python Kaa, spectacularly voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who reinforces the notion, begun with Spike Jonze's "Her," that she can totally transfix audiences with her voice alone.
Then there is King Louie, a massive Gigantopithecus who has big plans for Mowgli. Christopher Walken may seem an unlikely choice for this big ape, but his mellifluous New York tones and his ability to get the most out of the classic Sherman Brothers "I Wanna Be Like You" song will win you over.
Most entertaining, inevitably, is Bill Murray's Baloo the bear, a genial, silver-tongued con artist who tells Mowgli with a straight face "you have never met a more endangered species than me" and enlists him as a co-conspirator in the eternal search for honey.
As noted, this "Jungle Book" does have its darker side, not only jeopardy for Mowgli but hints of the danger that humans pose to the entire natural world. Fire, "the red flower," is a key plot element, characterized as a human creation that brings destruction to the pristine landscape. Touching all the bases, even this one, is second nature to Favreau's film, and its impressive to see how effortless he makes it seem.
'The Jungle Book'
MPAA rating: PG, for some sequences of scary action and peril
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes