The third and newest film produced by the Walt Disney Company to bear the title The Jungle Book significantly lacks the greatest strength of Maleficent and Cinderella, Disney's other recent attempts to remake its animated features as realistic popcorn movies: it does not feature a world-class actress playing one of the studio's greatest villains (which also, for that matter, sets it apart from the 20-year-old live-action 101 Dalmatians, which Disney seems just as happy to forget about). Odd, then, that The Jungle Book should also turn out to be the best of those movies. It's maybe not good enough to be an argument in favor of continuing to make them, as Disney clearly intends to do until they run out of plausible titles, but it at least suggests that they can do more than give slumming divas something hammy to chew on.

Note that at no point did I refer to The Jungle Book, 2016 edition as "live-action", because it's really not that at all: other than human orphan Mowgli (Neel Sethi), and I presume some of the props he interacts with, everything onscreen down to the last blade of grass and drop of water is a CGI effect (it's worth noting that Disney pioneered the "live action person in an animated world" genre with its 1920 Alice Comedies series, so this is plundering the corporate history books in more ways than one). It's not clear exactly what this buys the movie, and exceedingly clear what it costs, but the CGI is unbelievably splendid, anyway. Calling it "photorealistic" hardly captures the totality of it: this is the most authentic, realistic creation of a physical space that I have ever seen in a movie. Enough so that one starts to wonder if it wouldn't have just been more straightforward to actually go out and shoot it all in actual physical spaces, but I suppose the level of control of camera permitted to the filmmakers, and the precision of the interactions between the CGI cast of talking animals and the CGI jungle that they were able to achieve, were the argument in favor of doing it. It's enthralling to be dropped into the middle of the virtual sets and look around at them, at any rate, and the film earns the ever-loving hell out of the upcharge to 3-D; not since Avatar has a film Avatar'd this well. Which I mean as a compliment, and indeed a big one.

The cost, meanwhile, is entirely to the protagonist: Mowgli comes across as a rather uninteresting blank slate and Sethi's performance is dire. I don't see any reason to blame the tween actor for that: the ability to convincingly interact with sets and other characters when those things don't exist comes naturally to nobody, and I can't imagine he was helped out very much by Jon Favreau, a filmmaker whose approach to directing actors has long seemed to come down to hiring people he things it would be fun to hang out with, and then let them do whatever. Coaxing a performance out of a child under such inauspicious circumstances isn't really part of his skillset, and Sethi ends up with a real bad case of "Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace" syndrome, looking rather emptily are far too much of the film, while delivering most of his lines (and there are some acutely terrible lines in Justin Marks's screenplay) in a monotonously upbeat trill. The result is a Jungle Book with a giant hole in the place its heart and soul should be, and that puts a very low ceiling on how much it can be beyond a top-notch demo reel.

Anyway, the story is basically taken wholesale from Disney's 1967 animated feature (the studio's 1994 live-action version has been dropped so far down the memory hole that I'm sure they'd be happier for nobody to ever mention it again), drawing from Rudyard Kipling's short story collection in exactly the same ways, meaning just "Mowgli's Brothers" and "Kaa's Hunting" put in any appearance, and they themselves have been vastly transformed. The biggest shift, at the level of plot, is to throw a "because audiences in the 2010s like everything to be hyper-literal" backstory connecting Mowgli and the monstrous tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), years ago, so that the tiger has some trumped-up reason for wanting the boy dead that even he doesn't seem to believe in particularly much. Otherwise, it's all the same stuff as 49 years ago: Mowgli has been raised to the age of about 12 in a wolf pack by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o), and when Shere Khan discovers that a "man cub" is lose in the jungle, he vows to destroy it. So the sensible, boring black panther Bagheera (Sir Ben Kingsley) agrees to take Mowgli to the closest human settlement, though various adventures intervene, including a close run-in with the hypnotist rock python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), who wants to eat Mowgli, the gigantopithecus Louie (Christopher Walken), who wants to exploit him, and the sloth bear Baloo (Bill Murray), who wants to hang out lazily with him.

I am god-damned if I can tell you why Louie has been upgraded to a long-extinct giant ape species. Probably to make the layover in the ruined temple he makes his kingdom even scarier than the shadows draped every which where. Perhaps coincidentally, probably not, but the episode with Louie is the worst thing in the movie by a laughably huge margin: crazily grim with weird, totally unsuccessful humor that tries to recast the giant ape king as a low-rent New Jersey mobster with a protection racket, and ultimately transformed into a horror-movie monster chase that's endlessly hamstrung by the film's family-friendly intentions.

Even setting that aside, the whole matter of The Jungle Book is a little bit odd, tonally. It is understood that the 1967 film underwent a significant rewrite to make it less dark; I wonder if this is what it looked like before that rewrite? It's a startlingly un-funny film, with almost no real attempt before Baloo shows up to include even any comic relief; compared to the original, it has all of the jazzy, anachronistic humor siphoned out, and action-adventure setpieces plugged back in. It's a change for the better, I frankly think; my ambivalence towards the '67 film on this count is on the record, and while I think this film goes much too far in the other direction a few times (the Louie sequence; a water buffalo stampede that's a straightforward, if technically impressive, lift from The Lion King), this is generally more in keeping with the consequential tone of Kipling's writing. And most of the setpieces are pretty good: aye, just one blob of 1s and 0s being manipulated into another, but the lighting effects are dramatic and delightful, and the sound mix bombastic. For a PG-rated family movie, the action snaps.

For the most part, the film keeps its weaknesses in check: Mowgli is used more as a point of view character than a protagonist much of the time, so we're seeing what he sees rather than actually having to deal with the fact that he's banal and unsympathetic. Virtually all of the casting choices for the animals is 100% on point (Murray, surprisingly, is the clear weak link, though the way the character has been re-conceived as a pathetic, dumpy conman would make it hard on anybody). The best performance, Elba's, is also somehow the most disappointing: it fits the metanarrative better to have the imperious tyrant dominating the jungle voiced by a smugly bored white Englishman, and George Sanders was anyways going to be impossible to improved upon. But Elba is terrifically menacing regardless. So at any rate, most of the characters we're spending time with are enjoyable company.

Eventually, the film shits the bed, hard: the ending is an extraordinary protracted exercise in missing the point and letting the hero off the hook, although the loveliness of the setting of the final battle helps the medicine go down. It does contribute to the overall sense that, for all its energy and whiz-bang, this Jungle Book is an emotional sham, interested rather in marshaling code around than providing a remotely compelling story. But you know, that code is marshaled around tremendously well, and even when it's most obviously trying badly to put something over on us, The Jungle Book is never less than pleasurable to watch.