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Thrilling And Kinetic, Updated 'Jungle Book' Is 'A Triumph'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new film "The Jungle Book" was released today based on Rudyard Kipling's classic stories about a boy who's raised in the jungle by wolves. "The Jungle Book" was first adapted into a film in 1942. Walt Disney produced an animated musical version in 1967. The new adaptation is a mix of live action and computer animation. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The new Disney version of "The Jungle Book," directed by Jon Favreau, is a triumph of computer animation and storytelling. The gimmick is that it uses a real actor, Neel Sethi, as Mowgli, the boy raised by loving wolves who's also overseen by a patriarchal black panther named Bagheera, voiced with stentorian British plumy-ness by Sir Ben Kingsley. But the movie surrounds Sethi with brilliantly computer-rendered wolves, panthers, tigers and bears.

If there are times when Mowgli seems computer enhanced, too, made smoother, his skin glowing Disney orange or made to fly at impossible speeds when he's carried off by monkeys - well, that makes "The Jungle Book" seem all the more seamless. These animals have a near utopian existence, even happier than the one in this year's other animated hit, "Zootopia." During the dry season, the various species declare a truce and gather at a stream to share what little water is available. When the level rises above a certain rock, it will be back to business, although we never actually see that. The lone evident predator is the tiger, Shere Khan, voiced by Idris Elba. who has a bee in his bonnet about the boy who everyone calls the man cub. He thinks it's time to eat Mowgli.

To protect Mowgli, the wolves decide to send him back to the human village from which he came as a baby. But after a harrowing escape from Shere Khan and a chilling encounter with the 30-foot python Kaa, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, the boy ends up in the cave of a supremely lazy bear named Baloo. The bear, voiced by Bill Murray, promptly puts Mowgli to work, climbing cliffs to steal honey for his hibernation, which incenses Bagheera, who prefers the boy use his wolf rather than human skills.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUNGLE BOOK")

NEEL SETHI: (As Mowgli) It's a honey stash for winter.

BEN KINGSLEY: (As Bagheera) Have you lost your mind?

NEEL: (As Mowgli) You said you wouldn't get mad.

KINGSLEY: (As Bagheera) Did you listen to anything Akela taught you? There's no place in the jungle for these tricks. You want to do this, you do this in the man village.

NEEL: (As Mowgli) But I'm helping Baloo get ready for hibernation.

KINGSLEY: (As Bagheera) Bears don't hibernate in the jungle. What are you teaching him?

BILL MURRAY: (As Baloo) Not full hibernation but I nap, a lot.

EDELSTEIN: You love Bill Murray, right? I love Bill Murray. He's inspired casting for the hipster liar Baloo. The only trouble is he has one of the best songs in the Disney canon, "The Bare Necessities," and he can't sing. So he whales in time and kills that great melody. I had to listen to Phil Harris's original from the 1967 Disney cartoon to quench my thirst for the actual notes. But I have few other complaints about this "Jungle Book." It's colorful; it's thrillingly kinetic. It has a terrific jazzy score by John Debney and a hilarious Marlon Brando in "Apocalypse Now" parody by Christopher Walken as the humongous orangutan-like ape King Louie.

Untethered by reality, its settings are huge, its cliffs and waterfalls like something out of James Cameron's "Avatar." And that makes since Mowgli is our "Avatar," the wide-eyed human who holds his own against beasts of the jungle and earns his place in the natural world. Jon Favreau has said this "Jungle Book" is closer to Rudyard Kipling's original insofar as the animals are savage. They really tear one another up. But I want to put a word in for Kipling. The Bombay-born Englishman who was thoroughly comfortable with British colonialism isn't fashionable today. But I was weaned on his "Just So Stories" and "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi." It's Kipling's grasp of politics that makes his work exciting on so many levels.

The animals do cooperate, but they're plainly predators whose main concern is the survival of their species. When the wolves' leader, who's Mowgli's protector, ages out of his alpha male status, the pack debates killing the boy. Kaa the python cooperates with Bagheera and Baloo to save Mowgli only after they promise to share their future kills. And Mowgli from the start knows he'll have to destroy the tiger Shere Khan to ensure his own survival. The point is that Kipling sweetens the world of the jungle without sanitizing it. And I think back happily on his stories as I don't on Disney's "Jungle Book." But then Kipling, canny showman that he was, wasn't in the theme park business. Even this myopic colonialist had a deeper vision of the natural world.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Monday on FRESH AIR, the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVID QUAMMEN: The grizzly bear, the black bear, the wolf, the mountain lion, the coyote, they're all there.

GROSS: We'll talk with David Quammen about the conflicting needs of the wildlife, the millions of visitors and the ranchers who live nearby. He wrote a special edition of National Geographic magazine commemorating the centennial of the National Park Service. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producers Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Julian Herzfeld and Joyce Lieberman. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.