Until the final scenes, when it turns into a CGI mash-up of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” and a pro-wrestling smackdown, “The Jungle Book” is a thing of digitized beauty. An entertainment, to be sure, and one that will swell Disney’s coffers (again) and prompt your kids to noodge you to take them back for seconds (you’ll go willingly). And, yes, that’s Bill Murray in the center ring as the voice of Baloo, the Jimmy Buffett of bears. But the chief attraction of the film is the ersatz India created by the pixel pushers at special effects houses WETA Digital and the Moving Picture Company.
The film’s young Mowgli is real enough: a charmingly down-to-earth newcomer named Neel Sethi, he strides through the green-screen foliage like the New Yorker he is offscreen. (A jungle is a jungle, after all.) Surrounding the hero, though, are not only talking animals of almost tactile musculature and movement but hyper-real 3-D landscapes of jungle and plains, river and mountain, field and frond. The movie seems unimaginably lush — except that all of it has been imagined, and designed, coded, and color-corrected for your deepest pleasure.
This makes sense. We’re trashing the planet and driving most of the species in this movie to extinction, but at least we’ve evolved the technology to re-create them and their habitats in computers and charge audiences money to see them. I’m sorry, was that cynical? I digress.
The new “Jungle Book” doesn’t depart much from the story line of Disney’s 1967 cartoon version, which already had little to do with Rudyard Kipling’s original books — Walt famously gave a copy of Kipling to one of his screenwriters and told him not to read it — but it has beefed up the verisimilitude and sense of peril. Once again Mowgli is required to set out on a journey to the “man village” to be with his own kind, and once again he resists all the way. But where the first film was a two-dimensional kids’ fable, heavy on the comedy and song, this is an action-adventure saga that, despite a PG rating, feels implicitly red in tooth and claw. (It’s fine for all but the littlest boy and girl cubs.)
We’re immediately plunged into the life of Mowgli as he frolics with the wolves who raised him and takes life advice from Bagheera, a stunning black panther voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley as a wandering knight of the wilderness. An early drought sequence brings all the animals to a water hole under a temporary food-chain truce and allows the filmmakers to strut their digital stuff: rhinos and crested porcupines and jerboas, oh my.
And a tiger, mangier and meaner and more majestic than the one in “Life of Pi,” one dead-set on removing the man-cub from the surface of the earth. His name, as you know, is Shere Khan, and Idris Elba voices him with a threat that feels more three-dimensional than anything you’ll see through the glasses. (The character seems to have been injected with some of Scar’s DNA from “The Lion King,” not the only echo of the 1994 film here.)
I’m hesitant to tell you who else is in the cast, since part of the fun of this “Jungle Book” is hearing some very familiar voices and identifying them on cadence and intonation alone. So maybe skip this next bit, where I tell you that the role of the jungle python Kaa has been graced with a hypnotic seductiveness that of course comes courtesy of Scarlett Johansson and that hearing the neurotic porcupine is like sitting shiva for the late Garry Shandling, i.e., a poignant joy. That Lupita Nyong’o is very good as Mowgli’s wolf-mother even if she deserves a movie in which we actually see her, and that the voice of King Louie, the oversized orangutan who wants Mowgli to bring him the “red flower” of man’s fire, is provided by — no, I’ll let you find out for yourselves. But he’s an outer-borough treat, especially when he starts singing “I Wan’na Be Like You.”
Yes, the songs are here from the 1967 version, or two of them: King Louie’s anthem and Baloo’s paean to the lazy life, “The Bare Necessities,” both awkwardly shoehorned into a painstaking CGI canvas that convinces us animals can talk but not quite that they should sing. The first number works because the King Louie scenes are a total freak-out, zillions of Old World simians scrambling across a vast complex of temple ruins, and the second works because the filmmakers are wise to let Murray be Murray, even under a thick motion-capture pelt. For the record, this handily beats his vocal work in “Garfield,” and I wish they’d cast him in “The Revenant,” too.
“The Jungle Book” is Disney’s second attempt to modernize their legendary animation properties into live-action/digital hybrids, and the batting average remains high. Last year’s “Cinderella” set the bar with a reliable name director (Kenneth Branagh), deep production values, and respect for both the original film and the audience’s intelligence. The new film follows suit. With “Elf” and the first two “Iron Man” movies, director Jon Favreau has proved he can make big studio contraptions seem warm and nearly human — he’s the Baloo of filmmakers — and the great strength of this “Jungle Book” is how busy it is with personalities and incident.
So it’s a disappointment when the movie loses momentum in the second half and then takes an apocalyptic turn in the final 20 minutes, becoming a series of breathless chases, pitched animal slugfests, and fiery confrontations. It’s almost as though Favreau had forgotten he wasn’t making “Iron Man 4: Avengers in Fur.” For all the technological breakthroughs and genuine high spirits in “The Jungle Book,” the movie ultimately settles for big business as usual — the latest in manufactured awe. Take your children to see it, and then teach them to value the real thing.
THE JUNGLE BOOK
Directed by Jon Favreau. Written by Justin Marks, based on the books by Rudyard Kipoling. Starring Neel Sethi and the voices of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs, Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Natick and Reading. 106 minutes. PG (some sequences of scary action and peril).