You may have heard, watched and read "The Jungle Book" before, but any experience you've had with the franchise was nothing more than a warmup to the main event.
Director Jon Favreau's opus, which relies heavily on cutting-edge CGI technology to bring his host of talking animal characters to life, could only exist here and now. Favreau's vision surpasses the reach and imagination of any take on the material to come before, and the result is nothing short of a breathtaking dawn of a new era of what is possible in the realm of lifelike animation.
Part remake of the animated 1967 film, part faithful recreation of the 1894 Rudyard Kipling novel, part wholesale re-imagining of the boy-raised-by-wolves trope, the collective result is something fresh and new.
The film is a passion project that Favreau has been working toward throughout his career, starting as an indie darling by writing and starring in "Swingers" and moving into the big time with the family classic "Zathura," the blockbuster "Iron Man" films and even the technically impressive but flaccid "Cowboys and Aliens."
Working with the fevered and assured control of Mickey Mouse's Sorcer's Apprentice conductor in "Fantasia," Favreau orchestrates incredible CGI, heartfelt voice performances and dazzling action sequences to plunge you into the Indian jungle to tag along with Mowgli (Neel Sethi) on his escapades.
Not content to fall back on streotypical Disney white-washing, Favreau's jungle is less a happy-go-lucky romper room than a thorny, complicated Darwinian incubator. Mowgli's jungle is one in which death is an everyday, accepted part of life, where you are quick or clever or a snack for the vultures. There are also touches of social acceptance and racism, as well as plenty of commentary on man's indifference and cruelty for nature. Favreau goes for moments of joy rather than pat moral lessons or happy endings.
Much of the credit to the movie's success belongs to the 12-year-old Sethi, a brilliantly cast star in the making. Relied upon to draw all the pathos for his one-boy-show, he thrives not only because of his acting chops, but because he's young enough to have the unfettered animation to make his romping in front of a green screen be believable.
The voice cast is similarly inspired, with Bill Murray breaking into full song as Baloo the bear, Christopher Walken doing the same in a barely-restrained performance as King Louie the ape, Ben Kingsley's delivering cautious angst as Mowgli's stern protector, Bagheera the panther, and Scarlett Johansson nailing a distressingly seductive turn as Kaa the snake.
Maybe the movie is a little too cloying; a little too in love with staring at itself in the mirror; a little too intent at rehashing songs from the animated film. That barely slows the breathless momentum of the breezy, exciting and intelligent adventure. With the momentum of last year's zeitgeist-capturing "Star Wars: Episode VII -- The Force Awakens," thought-provoking, inspirational "Zootopia" and now this slice of visionary excellence, Disney is embarking on a new golden age.
RATING: 3.5 stars out of 4.