The Jungle Book **

The visual effects are amazing, but the story needs more of the bare necessities.

Is it worth $10? No

Driving home after seeing “The Jungle Book,” I told my wife I thought it was visually impressive but the story was lacking and there are too many superfluous characters. That it all felt kind of flat and tedious. She then pointed out that I had the exact same reaction to Disney’s 1967 animated version of “The Jungle Book,” and I’m not kidding when I tell you I completely forgot that was my take on the original.

One reason the remake’s plot feels hackneyed and thrown together rather than coherent and vibrant could be because it’s loosely based on a number of short stories by Rudyard Kipling; even the 1967 film was a piecemeal compilation of storylines and characters from throughout Kipling’s series. You’d think writer Justin Marks and director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) would’ve learned from these shortcomings, but they’ve loyally stuck with their predecessor to a fault.

The main storyline is a bit thin, but functional. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a human boy in the jungle being raised by wolves (Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito) and a paternal panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Their livelihood is threatened when a tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba), citing his own dangerous encounter with a man years earlier, decides he wants to kill Mowgli. Bagheera decides its best to take Mowgli back to his fellow humans, but Mowgli gets lost along the way and settles in with a bumbling bear named Baloo (Bill Murray).

While these basics are okay, the lack of a subplot is backbreaking. What’s more, we don’t need a snake named Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) telling us Mowgli’s backstory, or an extended sequence with King Louie (Christopher Walken) that’s only purpose is lengthening the running time. Anything and everything accomplished in these sequences could’ve been achieved much easier and in more economical ways, but instead the story meanders until the whole thing becomes a drag.

Favreau’s remake was shot entirely on a soundstage in Los Angeles, which is mind-boggling considering the quality of the visuals (this is similar to how “Avatar” was shot). The rain, darkness of night, various wildlife and vast terrains of the jungle look and feel authentic, and in 3D it’s a dynamic viewing experience. Watch for the little details, like shadows on the walls and the wolves’ hair rising up in fear, for a real appreciation of the artwork on display here.

Too bad that alone is not enough. This isn’t a musical, but there are two songs that harken back to the 1967 film, though only one – Murray and Sethi’s take on “Bare Necessities” – is engaging and feels right (and note the detailed visual effects on Baloo’s wet fur – they’re tremendous). In fact, just about all of Murray’s lines are a hoot, making him the clear standout among an impressive list of names in the voice cast.

Disney is in the midst of a series of live action adaptations of their classic cartoons, with “Cinderella” a box office hit in 2014, “The Jungle Book” now and “Beauty and the Beast” slated for March 2017 (not to mention Angelina Jolie’s 2014 “Maleficent” spinoff from “Sleeping Beauty”). It’s not a bad trend, as technology has clearly advanced enough to make any world from any imagination come alive. It is bad, however, when the filmmakers don’t fix what was wrong in the first place. If you’re going to remake a classic, you have to do better than this.

Did you know?
This is comedian Garry Shandling’s final film – he steals a few scenes early on as Ikki the porcupine, who was in Kipling’s stories but was not in the 1967 film.

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