Once again Mowgli runs through the jungle in a red loincloth in Disney DIS -0.85 % ‘s re-imagining-and huge re-energizing-of “The Jungle Book.” Yet this latest version makes the 1967 animated classic look like kid stuff-sweet and lovely stuff, fondly remembered for its pretty pastel drawings, its show-bizzy humor and its benign take on the jungle as a pleasant place, notwithstanding a nasty tiger and a silly, sibilant snake.
Mowgli, the man-cub raised by a family of wolves, is played by Neel Sethi.
The boy’s performance may serve from time to time as a reminder that wolves don’t send their offspring to acting classes, but he’s a consistently agreeable presence, and his occasional, touching tentativeness plays nicely with the well-spoken animals who surround him: Bagheera, the panther voiced by Ben Kingsley; Kaa, the scarily seductive snake; Raksha, Mowgli’s adoptive wolf mother ; Akela, his adoptive father; Baloo the bear; King Louie and of course S Khan, the terrifying lion voiced with commanding authority by Idris Elba.
When the tale begins a drought is transforming the land, and the law of the jungle gives way to a temporary spirit of cooperation that’s sealed by a truce.
In the 1967 Disney feature elephants were clowns; a long sequence was devoted to the Jungle Patrol, an elephant troop of British colonial soldiers led by a sort of Colonel Blimp.
In the new film it’s the elephants who have created the jungle, and Mowgli is taught to bow down before them in reverence.
We’re the bad guys, wielding fire-the “Red Flower”-with a recklessness that devastates the jungle, although Mowgli’s own role in a conflagration is conveniently fudged.
Nothing could be further from that unhappy truth than “The Jungle Book,” which, obeying its own brilliant sense of design, puts Mowgli and his fellow creatures into a landscape of a hyper-reality that hasn’t been seen since “Avatar.” Mowgli, previously a bust at climbing trees, out-Tarzans Tarzan, or more accurately out-Spideys Spider-Man, by vaulting, swinging and dashing through the vegetation on his way to maturity and a showdown with S Khan.