About a third of the way through Disney’s remake of The Jungle Book, an enormous python with the narcotically sexy voice of Scarlett Johansson appears out of the rainforest fog. She coils around pre-adolescent runaway Mowgli and describes his singularly destructive potential. He’s the lone human in a jungle populated by what’re basically alien creatures, and she explains that his comparably feeble and diminutive build can’t mask an extraordinary qualification: he alone can harness fire. Throughout the movie, that element is referred to as the “red flower,” and her warning is accompanied by an acid-trip hallucination every bit as imaginative as that descriptor suggests. As Johannson’s baritone tongue slithers over the abstract bursts of color and movement, the movie’s spell is demonstrably hypnotic.
The whole thing is over just as quickly as it began and Kaa is never seen again—this Jungle Book is as grand as it is episodic—but following an extended, awe-inspiring introduction the sequence adds an extra dimension of mind-twisting surrealism to the movie’s conception. The Jungle Book offers a zoology so convincing that even a hint of anthropomorphism should disrupt its build: there should be a cognitive disconnect when these savage beasts open their snouts to reveal emotions and motivations so human. But those emotions are delivered by the decidedly unreal vocalizations of Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, and Lupita Nyong’o. And in an ecosystem so theatrical, a rain-starved hamlet where tigers and gazelles set aside their differences to share a slurp of water isn’t so much bewildering as it is beguiling. By the time Christopher Walken appears as an enormous ape that sounds less like Louis Prima than Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, we’re as far from Disneyland as we are Planet Earth.
That willingness to take chances pays off. The Jungle Book moves with thundering insistence, and we barely have time to orient ourselves to one environment before we’re on to another. And while the tone is sometimes as weighty as the CGI creations, director Jon Favreau has a sharp eye and a fleet touch. He never lets seriousness get in the way of what should be a good time, and the occasional startle is more of a spark for his next composition than a sustained mock-serious pose. If that means that whatever the movie is saying about growing up or environmental awareness gets lost in the sprint, so be it: The Jungle Book’s three-dimensional thrills are visually—and at times, viscerally—sumptuous, state-of-the-art entertainment.
THE JUNGLE BOOK. Directed by Jon Favreau. Written by Justin Marks. Starring Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, and Ben Kingsley. In theaters April 15th.