The Jungle Book has, as they say, baggage. The newest CGI + live actor version, which is more an adaptation of Disney's animated film than it is of Kipling's Mowgli tales (the opening credits to the contrary), does its best to sidestep and subvert the implicit (and frequently not so implicit) imperial and racial themes of its various predecessors, with sometimes more and sometimes less success. Despite the new-and-improved Shere Khan, the film is certainly more upbeat than Kipling's tales, in which Mowgli's ability to find community in either the jungle or the village remains starkly limited, leaving him with an identity crisis that anticipates the one haunting Kim later on. If we take "In the Rukh" to be the canonical ending to the Mowgli tales, even though it appeared first--Kipling liked to repurpose his characters--then the only way to make sense of Mowgli is, as Muller says, as "Adam in der Garden, and now we want only an Eva!"--or perhaps some narrative even older than that.
As a technical feat, the film is certainly gorgeous to look at. The CGI animals are all rendered with exquisite realism, with only occasional blips revealing their computerized origins (neither Shere Khan nor Bagheera looks quite right while jumping on rocks, perhaps because the sense of impact is absent from the rendering); so too is the jungle, filled with all sorts of tiny creatures, which shifts from sunny to ominous at a moment's notice. Despite a fair amount of violence, there's no blood; however, some of the fight scenes involving Shere Khan seemed to be a bit much for the younger children at the matinee I attended, not least because one of them involves a jump scare that startled a bunch of adults, too. Aside from a few strained line readings, Neel Sethi, the child actor playing Mowgli, does admirably under the CGI-heavy circumstances. (The survival of his red underwear remains a wonder for the ages, although at least the film provides a flashback explanation.) The voice acting is all convincing, enough so that it's only later that you wonder why everyone in the jungle, Mowgli included, has an American accent, except for the big cats. Idris Elba is especially menacing as the murderous Shere Khan, who is far more dangerous than his urbanely unpleasant animated counterpart--who was, in turn, far more dangerous than the rather ratty original. (Both films avoid the mockery that Kipling's characters aim at Shere Khan's disability.) That being said, Christopher Walken's voice really didn't seem to go with a Gigantopithecus...
Which brings us to the plot. Like both the original Mowgli tales and the animated adaptation, this Jungle Book is in part about what it means to grow up--a familiar enough theme in a Disney film. In Kipling's tales, the answer is deeply bittersweet at best, as Mowgli is first rejected by his wolfpack (thanks to Shere Khan's machinations) and then by the villagers (after he kills Shere Khan); he eventually returns to the jungle, until his own burgeoning desires drive him out of it again for good as an adolescent. But in Kipling, Mowgli's coming adulthood also confirms his superiority. Mowgli's power is signified by his ability to stare: as a child, he can stare down Bagheera, even though the panther can resist him for a while; similarly, when Shere Khan tries to dominate him by snarling "Look at me, Man-cub!" Mowgli simply gazes at him "insolently" and the tiger "turned away uneasily" ("How Fear Came"). Contrariwise, Mowgli can gaze on Kaa's hypnotic pulsations without feeling any effect, even though Bagheera and Baloo are drawn in themselves. By the final tale, Mowgli rules all the creatures in the jungle, his old friends included, and it is again his eyes that signify his powers: "'The mouth is hungry,' said Bagheera, 'but the eyes say nothing. Hunting, eating, or swimming, it is all one—like a stone in wet or dry weather.' Mowgli looked at him lazily from under his long eyelashes, and, as usual, the panther's head dropped. Bagheera knew his master" ("The Spring Running"). Mowgli's unreadable gaze overpowers, but gives nothing back; he comprehends the beasts, but his own psychology has moved beyond their comprehension. The jungle was sufficient for childhood, not for adult passions. (Again, though, assuming "In the Rukh" is part of this continuity, Mowgli meets his own match in the form of the white forestry officials.) Both this version and the animated one play down this skill, inasmuch as Mowgli easily falls prey to Kaa until someone else rescues him, memorably Shere Khan (inadvertently, obviously) in the animated film and Baloo in this one. In general, the animated film does its best to eliminate any hints of Mowgli's mastery altogether, even as it also quietly eases him out of the jungle at the end with the promise of adult sexuality. Now, though, things are a little more complicated.
The 2016 film separates Mowgli from the other characters by identifying him with homo faber--man the maker. Although fire is integral to both the original tales and the Disney adaptations, this film specifically insists that it is not just Mowgli's ability to use fire, but also to make and use tools, that renders him "other" to the jungle beasts; indeed, both the wolves and Bagheera repeatedly reprimand him for such "tricks." Mowgli's mini-MacGyveresque engineering skills emphasize his status as that evergreen favorite of children's stories everywhere, the misunderstood outsider. In the beginning, Mowgli tries to fit in with the wolfpack by running with them, something he obviously can't do, and Akela's warnings are all about the danger of sticking out. Once he decides to leave the pack to protect them (not entirely successfully, as it turns out), he winds up with the solitary Baloo, who, in the beginning, is all too willing to abuse Mowgli's skills to fulfill his own hunger for honey. Phases I and II thus swing between having one's individuality suppressed in order to conform and having one's individuality celebrated...in order to be exploited by somebody else. It is perhaps not surprising that in phase III, the King Louie sequence, King Louie turns out to be a warped Baloo. In the Mowgli stories, the monkeys or Bandar-Log introduced in "Kaa's Hunting" have some of the most overt racist overtones in the entire sequence, all the more loaded given the context of nationalist movements in 1890s India: "They were always just going to have a leader, and laws and customs of their own, but they never did, because their memories would not hold over from day to day, and so they compromised things by making up a saying, 'What the Bandar-log think now the jungle will think later,' and that comforted them a great deal." Capable only of mimicry--one feels the urge to consult Homi Bhabha--the leaderless and therefore anarchic monkeys exist in stark contrast to the hierarchical regime of the Jungle Law that holds elsewhere. The monkeys like to go on about being "free," and yet their freedom lies in ruins and forgetfulness. While giving this group a leader eliminates at least part of Kipling's scornful satire, King Louie's song, "I Wanna Be Like You," brings the mimicry right back, with racial overtones yet again--nothing good is implied by a talking orangutan (in the animated version) or Gigantopithecus laying out his desire to turn himself into a distorted copy of a human being. Still, the 2016 film tries to work their way around this yet again with the Baloo parallel: whereas Baloo uses Mowgli to satisfy purely personal hungers, King Louie wants to weaponize him for conquest. Baloo's selfishness can be overcome through friendship--recognizing Mowgli as an individual, in other words, not a tool--but King Louie's desires, which require him to not pay attention to Mowgli as an individual (he wants fire; Mowgli doesn't know how to get it yet) can only lead to his own destruction. It is only in Phase IV, when Mowgli returns to the pack in order to kill Shere Khan, that everyone "matures" via what amounts to an allegory for cultural diversity. Although the pack acknowledges him as one of theirs yet again, Bagheera warns him that he must fight Shere Khan "like a man," instead of trying to copy the wolves, and so Mowgli does. And so everyone (er, except Shere Khan) lives happily ever after, having accepted the importance of celebrating individual difference for the greater good of the whole. Indeed, Bagheera's concluding voiceover tells us, Mowgli manages to unite the entire jungle against Shere Khan, despite having "no People" himself; far from maturing out of the jungle, Mowgli concludes the film essential to its fabric precisely because of his difference. No future exile from the jungle even seems to be on the cards.