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Mowgli and his wild, charming pack are back in ‘The Jungle Book’

A scene from “The Jungle Book.”
A scene from “The Jungle Book.” Disney

Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” said it first, and best: “I don’t want realism. I want magic!” Maybe it’s the Blanche in me who prefers magic to realism in certain types of fairy tales, but I have a hard time loving any movie dominated by ultra-crisp photorealistic animation designed to look real, not animated. That sort of realism often looks and feel misguided, slightly clinical. And it’s a substantial caveat when it comes to Disney’s new live-(ish) action version of “The Jungle Book.”

That said: The movie’s pretty good.

Director Jon Favreau’s voice cast for the animals is tiptop, for starters, from Bill Murray’s sloth bear, Baloo, to Idris Elba’s adversarial tiger, Shere Khan. There’s a real person on screen, too; Neel Sethi plays Mowgli. This week Disney announced plans for a “Jungle Book 2,” so clearly the studio’s bullish, or going ape, or pick your own animal metaphor, regarding the future of the man-cub and his digitally imagined Indian jungle habitat.

The general contours of this new “Jungle Book” belong to Disney’s 1967 animated musical. Other obvious inspirations include Rudyard Kipling’s 1890s stories and, no less crucial, Disney’s 1994 smash “The Lion King.” The latter’s a steady source of various images and ideas here, from a ghoulish boneyard to a suspenseful stampede to a guilt-tripping feline villain messing with the head of the young protagonist.

Screenwriter Justin Marks’ plotting is more elaborate than the 1967 edition, but the story remains pleasingly episodic. Raised by strong and proud wolf parents voiced by Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito, Mowgli must contend with Shere Khan’s mission of vengeance (he was scarred for life by the boy’s fire-wielding father, as we learn via flashback) and a jungle full of creatures who do not always have Mowgli’s best interests at heart.

Two songs from the ’67 animated film sneak their way in, enlivening the bland grandeur of composer John Debney’s score. Murray gets to sing “The Bare Necessities” while Christopher Walken, as the “jungle VIP” orangutan King Louie, lends an air of the weary mobster offering protection for a fee. The staging of his song, “I Wanna Be Like You,” doesn’t bring out the best in director Favreau’s visual instincts; it’s all chaos and scrambling. But elsewhere Favreau’s fundamental decency and relatively light touch serve him well. He has a knack for straight-ahead pacing and for tightening the screws (the movie is 81 percent life-and-death peril and 19 percent comic relief) without being maniacal about it.

Kipling’s poem “The Law of the Jungle” is quoted twice: “The strength of the pack is the wolf/And the strength of the wolf is the pack.” The photorealistic mudslides and such are impressive in their fashion. Some of Murray’s best moments either were improvised (“The smell … the smell is rough,” he says of King Louie’s lair) or sound improvised. And, bittersweetly, the voice of the late Garry Shandling is heard, briefly, as a brush-tailed porcupine with his own particular coping mechanisms when threatened by drought, or tigers.

“THE JUNGLE BOOK”

(out of 4)

Rated: PG (for some sequences of scary action and peril)

Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

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