I'm a huge fan of Rudyard Kipling and his works. As I've mentioned elsewhere, I think he's one of science fiction's unacknowledged founders.
So, when one member of the Crack Team asked to go see the new live-action/computer-animated Disney film of The Jungle Book, I agreed — though not without some skepticism. While there have been some excellent Kipling adaptations (like the masterpiece The Man Who Would Be King, or Chuck Jones's animated Rikki-Tikki-Tavi), The Jungle Book has been a tough morsel for cinema. The best-known version, Disney's animated musical adaptation, is just crazy-making: as a film of Kipling's book, it fails on almost every level. But it's also got at least two of the best musical numbers ever written in it. How can something so contemptuous of its source material be so much fun? And other live-action versions have tried to do Indiana Jones knockoffs, or somehow shoehorn in a love story. Bah.
I have a theory about why The Jungle Book is so hard to film, and it doesn't have anything to do with the technical problems of talking wolves and panthers. The Jungle Book is one of Kipling's most personal works, and it embodies a lot of his philosophy, right at the core of the book. And Kipling's philosophy is not particularly jolly or family-friendly. The Jungle Book isn't about the importance of family, or the value of friendship, or the need for community, or how to get over your Daddy issues, or any of the other easy-peasy themes so beloved of screenwriters.
The Jungle Book is about not fitting in. Mowgli ultimately can't be a member of the wolf pack — he is abandoned and betrayed by the wolves and has to seek other allies against the tiger. But he can't live among humans, either; his one attempt to do so ends with a village destroyed in revenge. In the end, he lives in the jungle alone, respected and feared but with no family of his own. His best friends and coequals are the panther Bagheera and the terrifying python Kaa, both of whom are also loners. That's Kipling's philosophy of life in a nutshell: in the end you can only rely on yourself.
Anyway. About the movie.
Technically it's a triumph. At no point did I see the things on screen as anything but real animals in a real jungle. I don't know how much of this film was animated, how much involved "practical" effects, and how much was real. It all looked real. The kid playing Mowgli is very convincing. He talks to tennis balls on sticks better than anybody.
As a story, my one-sentence summary is that this movie is what you'd get if you hired Rudyard Kipling to write a scene-for-scene adaptation of the Disney animated feature. It has all the same story beats and even reproduces some shots, but there are a lot of bonus Kipling points. The wolves play a much bigger role than in the animated version, which is good; Bagheera is much more a wise counselor than a fussbudget; Kaa is properly an awesome force of nature rather than a comic sidekick villain. "King Louis" the out-of-place orangutan voiced by Louis Prima has turned into "King Louis" the out-of-geological period Gigantopithecus voiced by Christopher Walken like he's a refugee from a Tarantino film. There is no barbershop quartet of birds who look like the Beatles. Baloo is voiced by Bill Murray, who isn't as good a singer as Phil Harris. The ending is a bit muddled: we learn it's important to "be yourself" so Mowgli has to defeat the tiger using his human smarts and dexterity, but we also learn that Fire = Bad, except when you MacGyver a way to get your opponent to fall into an inferno. Apparently that's much better, morally, than just sticking a burning branch into his face.
If one views it as a loving tribute to the animated version, it's a triumph. As a Kipling adaptation, less so. Overall, I give it an A-, including the Kipling Points already awarded.