The opening moments of The Jungle Book promise something ... well, "different" might be too hopeful a choice of words. It's a high-energy sequence, involving the "man-cub" Mowgli (Neel Sethi) darting through the jungle with his wolf siblings, scampering up trees and across branches in a pursuit game that's also a form of survival training. As the frame bursts with energetically-staged 3-D imagery, there's a glimmer of optimism: What if Disney has taken the radical step of turning one of its animated classics into a flat-out action movie?
These are the things one must hope for, since it's a long-ago-surrendered reality that Disney will keep making live-action versions of its animated catalog until money stops pouring into their pockets for doing so. From Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella to currently-in-development re-tellings of Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo, the release schedule will be full of recognizable titles stripped of their original cartoon context. But maybe, occasionally, the new version could have a reason to exist that's not exclusively fiscal. Maybe, instead of using a name-brand as a crutch, Disney can use it as a launching point for a fresh point of view.
And that's what, at least initially, seems to be going on in director Jon Favreau's (Iron Man) The Jungle Book. All the familiar characters from the Rudyard Kipling stories—at least as they are known by way of the 1967 Disney incarnation—are in place as the story unfolds of the orphaned boy raised by a pack of wolves. Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley) is here as Mowgli's main guardian, as is the genial Baloo the bear (Bill Murray); the principal antagonist remains the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who considers any human a threat.
Yet that opening sequence suggests a tone that's much more about adventure than about a kid-friendly romp. Favreau builds big set pieces around Mowgli's attempt to escape Shere Khan in a stampeding herd of wildebeest, and Mowgli's kidnapping by the apes who bring him to the orangutan King Louie (Christopher Walken). The photorealism of the sets is immersive, and the animals are dynamic creations; when Shere Khan launches an attack here, it's physical and—considering it could look like he's leaping out of the screen if you're watching in 3-D—fairly terrifying for young children. Imagine a movie under the Disney banner, based on a Disney animated property, that's not at all meant for kids.
Well, you can kill that imagination, because that's too much to ask. Since the songs from the 1967 movie are among the most recognizable things about it, you can be sure that we'll get snippets of "The Bear Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You," even though they feel completely out of place in this interpretation of the source material. The action stops more or less dead in its tracks so a few additional cute critters can emerge while Mowgli tries to procure honeycomb for Baloo, as almost all the comic relief—including Murray's vocal performance—falls flat. There's a "studio notes" vibe radiating from large chunks of this thing, as though some executive looked at a draft of the script built on the pure excitement of the story, and fumed, "Where the hell is the kid stuff?"
The shame of it is that there's a lot to like about individual pieces of The Jungle Book, even beyond its visual impact. Young Neel Sethi gives an endearingly charismatic performance, which is particularly impressive considering he isn't working with a single other human actor. There's even an intriguing contemporary political allegory built into the tale of Mowgli as an immigrant in this world—especially given that the main villain is an orange-haired bully who threatens everyone, and thinks the immigrant is a danger that needs to be eliminated.
But The Jungle Book isn't simply a movie. It's a Disney brand, and there's too much at stake to build a movie on scary thrills without also including comfortably nostalgic callbacks and cuddly talking animals. Parents bringing their youngsters will find a movie that's really not for them—and would have been even better if Disney hadn't tried to convince them otherwise.