The Jungle Book offers much more than bear necessities

The digital accomplishment The Jungle Book, Jon Favreau’s new take on the Kipling children’s tales, is on a par with that of Avatar, yet it retains the wide-eyed charm of the 1967 Disney classic, writes Damon Smith

Neel Sethi as Mowgli, below with Baloo the bear (voiced by Bill Murray), in The Jungle Book
Neel Sethi as Mowgli, below with Baloo the bear (voiced by Bill Murray), in The Jungle Book Neel Sethi as Mowgli, below with Baloo the bear (voiced by Bill Murray), in The Jungle Book

MUCH much more than the bare necessities of life will come to you in Jon Favreau's technically dazzling romp through the stories of Rudyard Kipling.

Not since James Cameron's Avatar has a 3D digital world been conjured with such depth and precision.

Shot in downtown Los Angeles and beautifully rendered as untamed wilderness on computer hard drives, this immersive Jungle Book retains the wide-eyed charm of the 1967 Disney animation, including three songs and comic relief from a rascally bear named Baloo, voiced to droll perfection by Bill Murray.

"You have never been a more endangered species than you are now," the hirsute honey thief informs an Indian porcupine (Garry Shandling) during one amusing altercation.

Vibrant colour radiates off the screen and gooey sentimentality oozes like sap during the rousing final act, but scriptwriter Justin Marks isn't afraid to hack into darker territory.

Shere Khan the Bengal tiger evokes a heartbreaking scene from The Lion King in his relentless, blood-crazed pursuit of Mowgli, and the animated version's jazziest interlude – I Wan'na Be Like You with jungle VIP King Louie and his swingin' band of monkeysicians – is repurposed as a terrifying chase.

Man cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is raised by wolves Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o) as a brother to other pups.

A terrible drought necessitates an uneasy truce between predators and prey around the watering hole, and other denizens of the jungle finally get to see Mowgli close-up.

The boy is an affront to Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who lost an eye to a fiery torch wielded by Mowgli's father.

"A man cub becomes man, and man is forbidden!" snarls the big cat, who demands the child be handed over to him for slaughter.

Akela and Raksha refuse, but Mowgli acknowledges his presence jeopardises the lupine clan.

So he embarks on a perilous journey back to civilisation in the company of his protector, Bagheera the black panther (Sir Ben Kingsley). En route, Mowgli gathers honey for greedy Baloo (Murray) and is pressurised into sharing the secret of "the red flower" – fire – with menacing Gigantopithecus, King Louie (Christopher Walken).

The Jungle Book flexes its digital muscles in every impeccably crafted frame, festooning the screen with a menagerie of anthropomorphised critters that are just as realistic as the shipwrecked tiger in Life Of Pi.

Sethi is a tad wooden in comparison, but it must be difficult for a 12-year-old newcomer to find an emotional core when the rest of the cast and lush backgrounds only spring to life in post-production.

Vocal performances are strong, replete with disorienting use of Scarlett Johansson's seductive whisper in surround sound during Mowgli's crushing encounter with python Kaa.

Trust in me: Favreau's film is a majestic walk on the wild side.

THE JUNGLE BOOK (PG, 106 mins) Family/Adventure/Action/Comedy. Neel Sethi and the voices of Bill Murray, Sir Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Garry Shandling. Director: Jon Favreau

RATING: Four stars