By and large, the Disney re-imaginings have followed the storylines of the original animated films. There are changes around the edges and new themes and angles added, but generally, these have been re-tellings of the same story. Jungle Book falls into that same category and it mostly follows the original story. The story begins by introducing Mowgli as a member of the wolf pack. There is a drought. The animals all gather around a disappearing watering hole and call a water truce. At that point, Shere Kahn (Idris Elba) appears and says he will kill Mowgli because the script calls for it.
Bahgeera finds Mowgli again. He and Baloo argue. In the meantime, Mowgli saves a baby elephant with his gadgets. Oh, did I mention that Mowgli is every Asian kid ever put on screen by Steven Spielberg? Yep, he makes gadgets as needed to serve the script. (Good thing he's not fat or he wouldn't be able to stop eating.) Anyhoo, Mowgli runs away when Baloo agrees that he will only be safe in the village. This leads to King Louie (Christopher Walken), a bizarrely oversized ape inappropriately played like a mobster. Eventually, there's a final fight with Shere Khan.
Generally speaking, Jungle Book was a good film. It held my attention and I didn't feel like I'd wasted my time or money. I do wonder though if I would have enjoyed it as much if I didn't have the original to pre-excite me about the film? I wonder this because throughout the movie I found myself most excited as I waited in anticipation to see how they would handle the introduction of the next iconic character. Watching the scenes themselves wasn't as interesting. So I wonder if I did not have a pre-love of the film coming in, would I have been as interested in this film? I'm not sure. One thing I do know, however, is that this film handicapped itself with a number of typical modern Hollywood mistakes.
The first mistake was the desire to fill every role with a famous actor: Elba, Walken, Murray, Johansson, Kingsley, etc. This has become par for the course in Hollywood because they think this will bring fans of the actors into the film. Unfortunately, few named actors are any good at voice work. And when you hire them to play themselves, as they did with Walken, you get some awful moments.
The real crime though was King Louie. The original King Louie is an amazing character. He's an insane-ish ape who has surrounded himself with fools so he can play the king who would be man. Voiced by the incomparable Louie Prima, he stand unique in the world of cartoon villains as a complex character who wants something so simple, yet so impossible, and wrongly thinks Mowgli can give it to him. Walken loses all of that subtlety, as well as Louie's charm. He plays Louie as if he were the Godfather, only with Walken's semi-retarded speaking style. This doesn't fit the jungle, or the movie, or the character.
The film does an amazing job with CGI, by the way. All of the landscapes are CGI and you'll never be able to tell. The sets are gorgeous and pull you into the jungle in a fantastic way. The only real flaw is again King Louis. His was made too large to make sense in this world.
The other problem is character. Character remains a problem for modern Hollywood, as again seen in this film. In the animated film, Shere Khan is pure menace with class, always acting with reason. Baloo is a true, loyal friend who just happens to be irresponsible when it comes to life. Bahgeera is a loyal friend, but a worrier. Louie we've already discussed. Kaa is a menacing villain, but a coward. And Mowgli... Mowgli really is the main character. The story is about him meeting these characters as he tries to run away from his fear so he can remain in childhood forever. He is eventually forced to face his fears, to grow up, and to become a man. This is symbolized in the end when Mowgli goes to the man village of his own accord to be with the girl.
Hollywood has lost the ability to tell a story that can be universally understood. A boy running from his fears is universally understood. A boy becoming a man is universally understood. The struggle between the worrier and the irresponsible is universally understood. Villains who act out of self-preservation (Kaa), fear (Khan), and jealousy (Louie) are understood. These are all things each of us experiences in our lives and things we instantly recognize and understand. But this film has none of those. This film replaces all of that with a standard revenge film and a series of set pieces.
That's why even though this wasn't a bad film, it wasn't a great film either and it certainly wasn't anywhere near the level of the original.