There’s a point in The Jungle Book when Mowgli, the feral-child hero, happens upon an enormous python named Kaa. Voiced by Scarlet Johansson in her soothing growl, the serpent approaches the boy like a stranger with candy, promising her protection and hypnotizing him with her protean eyes. Like all the animals in director Jon Favreau’s visually impressive remake of Disney’s 1967 animated film, which was based on Rudyard Kipling’s classic stories, Kaa is a wonder to behold. She slithers her lithe body atop and through tree trunks and branches with the malevolent nonchalance of a canopy demoness. As Mowgli falls prey to her allure, his attention paid fully to the transfixing visions in her shimmery gaze, she subtly wraps herself around him in what could be described as a mother’s embrace, if her intentions weren’t so clearly predatory. I won’t spoil how (or if) he escapes, but I will say the trap — a ploy other characters pull similarly throughout The Jungle Book — befits a movie that is itself little more than a decent distraction.
The story goes that bony misfit Mowgli (Neel Sethi) must reclaim the jungle from a ferocious autocratic tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba), with help, as always, from bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) as well as the wolf pack that raised him. The impeccable production design and visual effects make the beasts, especially Shere Khan, with his charred face and rearing fangs, at once tactile and mythological. However, the filmmakers never balance their darker aspirations with requisite shoutouts to Disney’s good-vibes original. Renditions of “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” are fun yet incongruous, even if Christopher Walken croons frozen-banana-cool as ape King Louis doing Brando. Meanwhile, Sethi, the one living being in this so-called “live-action” production, grins like Dopey when what this iteration really demands from its hero is fire. To be honest, I enjoyed The Jungle Book well enough, but by the final disposable message about respecting law and community (or whatever), I was thinking how much I need to revisit the forgotten swashbuckling 90’s version, with an adult Mowgli. That one had some real meat on its bones.