Mowgli, the little Indian boy who grows up with wolves in Rudyard Kipling’s fabled fables, has been brought to life, or at least to animation, in over a dozen movies. First in the role was Sabu, in 1942. The son of an elephant driver, he had himself been cast as a young mahout in the 1937 film Elephant Boy, based on another Kipling yarn. The best remembered Mowgli these days, though, is the cartoon character in Disney’s classic 1967 animation The Jungle Book. And now Neel Sethi, aged 12, a first-generation Asian-American, takes the role in a just released Disney version of the same title.

Sethi looks younger in the movie, and was perhaps 10 or 11 during its studio-based shooting. That seems about right for the role, although Mowgli’s age is given as only seven in Kipling’s original 1894 book, and the 1967 film reflects this. Mowgli is the only human character seen on screen in the new version, all the others being highly realistic “talking” animals created with the latest CGI wizardry, including Mowgli’s closest jungle buddies, Bagheera the panther and Baloo the bear, as well as his deadly enemy, Shere Khan the tiger.

But it’s surely the new Mowgli many here will be impatient to check out, unless you have already devoured all the publicity photos and trailers and maybe even seen the film a few times, which wouldn’t surprise me. For those who haven’t, you could do worse than start with a whole bunch of trailers at the Disney website.

If you are smitten at first sight, that will be reason enough to jump for a ticket. More fastidious souls (which counts me out!) will look critically before leaping towards the box office. So what creative, as opposed to commercial, justification could there be for a studio to remake its own original musical masterpiece, the last film to which Walt Disney, himself an animator, contributed his own personal creative input? It’s a question that implies you cannot improve on perfection but I don’t buy that at all. As with revivals of Sophocles or Shakespeare, new generations find new things to say and new ways of saying them, while keeping brand recognition as a huge draw.

Director Jon Favreau isn’t precious about it. His explanation in a video clip linked from the Guardian is simple and persuasive. He just thought that in addition to the obvious opportunity technology now offers for greater photo realism, it would be good to “move back towards the Kipling a little bit” and go more for an adventure film rather than just an amusing musical.

It works. He has kept The Bare Necessities, in more than one sense, from the earlier film, retaining this fine song and a couple of others. The comic touch is still there too, with some great new witty lines and visual humour. As for the Kipling, I can confirm, after reading all the original stories of Mowgli’s childhood, that writer Justin Marks has indeed incorporated far more of both the plot and the spirit of Kipling’s writing than the 1967 version, including a strong and important poetic element. He has even drawn to good effect on The Second Jungle Book, of 1895.

Just a couple of niggles. The action right at the start of the film is way too fast, with Mowgli seen flying at warp speed through the jungle, leaping monkey-fashion from branch to branch in a bid to keep up with the wolf pack below. Sure, kids in the video game era are used to faster action than us oldies can keep up with, but this is just ridiculous: photo realism was the aim and this is unrealistic.

Then there is the little matter of Mowgli’s loin cloth. In the original Disney version it was indeed little. And sexy. Who among BLs could forget the marvellous scene where Bagheera grips Mowgli’s loincloth in his teeth and nearly tugs it off in an effort to pull along the resisting boy, who does not want to be taken to the man-village. The effect is very like that of the famous Coppertone ad. The new version, by contrast, is about as sexy as a chastity belt, and that is not accidental: the anxiety over Mowgli’s modesty was such that enormous effort and expense went into creating an haute couture “authentic” jungle garment that could hardly have been less authentic in terms of wild-child wear, which would of course have amounted to nothing at all – even village children in India still go naked, never mind jungle ones; or at least they did when I was last there.

Kipling, too, was very specific on the matter. Mowgli is many times referred to as “naked”. Not until he goes to the man-village is he introduced to the loin cloth. In the book, but not Favreau’s film, he stays several months in the village, where he had to “ wear a cloth round him, which annoyed him horribly”.

But why should we be faithful to Kipling’s vision? Isn’t he, after all, one of those icons of oppressive imperialism, like Cecil Rhodes, whose statue at Oxford University has been under attack recently? Well, unlike Rhodes, Kipling was a writer not a land-grabber. Rather a good one, too, a Nobel laureate in literature hailed in his day as a genius, even by such a towering figure as Henry James.

As a child, I first knew him through his Just So Stories, about how the tiger got his stripes and such like. Later, his most famous poems hove into view, including If— and Gunga Din. This poetic aspect of his talent is actually very important to the new film, along with his gifts as a story teller, helping establish a radically more profound element than is to be found in old Walt’s comic capers. But it is there in a low key way, subliminal, working unobtrusively on the heart through the immense power of rhyme, rhythm and repetition, in a chorus threaded through the work:

 

Now this is the law of the jungle,

as old and as true as the sky,

And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper,

but the wolf that shall break it must die.

 

As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk,

the law runneth forward and back;

For the strength of the pack is the wolf,

and the strength of the wolf is the pack.

 

Like so much of Kipling, it hammers at something primal in us, something atavistic and compelling. These chorus verses are part of a much longer poem, The Law of the Jungle. What did they mean for Kipling’s original readers? What do we make of them now? Our first thoughts may go to the title, and its meaning as given in modern dictionaries: the “law” is about “a place devoid of ethics where brutality and self-interest reign” (American Heritage Idioms Dictionary). In Darwinian terms, it is the Survival of the Fittest, without thought for helping others or working with them.

The dictionary definition actually derives from popular use of Kipling’s phrase, but his wolves (“the strength of the wolf is the pack”) plainly do cooperate with each other. They have a group ethic, if you will – a predatory one, for sure, but deeply rooted in shared risks and bonds of loyalty that military leaders might identify as esprit de corps. Actually, there is no “might” about it. It is no accident that Lieutenant General Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scout movement, adopted The Jungle Book as a major influence for the Cub Scouts – these junior scouts, aged about 7-11, are called wolf cubs, after all.

To speak of “risks” in the same breath as childhood these days smacks us in the face with a mighty paradox. Children now are supposed to be protected, cushioned from exposure to every kind of adventure. But the Mowgli of this new film, along with the child heroes of countless Hollywood productions, faces a multitude of life-threatening perils with aplomb. And parents flock with their kids to see it!

Oddly, in the days when real kids did have adventures on their own outside the home, Mowgli was presented as rather helpless, depending heavily for survival on the junglecraft of his friends Bagheera and Baloo. In the new version, though, in line with the original Kipling, he emerges very quickly as a crafty and capable character, quickly outsmarting all the other animals. But the book, takes this capability much further: Mowgli becomes contemptuous of the “dog’s jabber” uttered by the wolves. Like that slightly later wild child, Tarzan, he grows to be the epitome of the Noble Savage, presented as loftily superior to the nearest villagers, tied as they are to ignorant superstitions about the fearful jungle and to dreary, mind-numbing toil on the land.

Wisely, Favreau has only gone, in his own words, “a bit” towards Kipling. It wouldn’t do these days to embrace some of the less fashionable themes in the jungle stories. What has been left out, or altered, is very illuminating.

Out, for instance, is a scene in which we hear about Baloo as a teacher of junglecraft to Mowgli, including the bear’s use of corporal punishment. He says to Bagheera:

“Is there anything in the jungle too little to be killed? No. That is why I teach him these things, and that is why I hit him, very softly, when he forgets.”

“Softly! What dost thou know of softness, old iron-feet?” Bagheera grunted. “His face is all bruised today by thy – softness. Ugh.”

“Better he should be bruised from head to foot by me who love him than that he should come to harm through ignorance,” Baloo answered very earnestly.

Despite his call for softness, Bagheera is also a believer in tough love. Baloo and Bagheera rescue Mowgli after he has been kidnapped by monkeys, costing them a deal of lost fur in a battle. The man-cub must be punished for foolishly playing with the primates. We hear that Bagheera administered “half a dozen love-taps from a panther’s point of view” but for a seven-year-old boy they amounted to “as severe a beating as you could wish to avoid”.

As for what has been altered, the most striking and clever new feature is a re-assessment of what it takes to be a leader. Kipling’s Mowgli had great qualities in spades: courage, fortitude, ingenuity – priceless virtues for those venturing to the ends of the earth to run an empire. Favreau’s Mowgli is likewise favoured with this trinity of traits, but with a much stronger emphasis than before on ingenuity and enterprise: we are treated to the Survival of the Smartest, in which Mowgli emerges as a Noble Savage for the era of the teen tech titan, more Nick D’Aloisio  than Tarzan, deploying what the animals call his “tricks”. At a water hole, for instance, he fashions a cup from what might be a coconut husk, thereby far surpassing the animals’ inefficient way of drinking by lapping.

But he really hits the heights, quite literally, when he devises a way of harvesting honey on an industrial scale from hives high up an inaccessible cliff: never mind imperialist exploitation, this is a rapaciously acquisitive capitalist in embryo. Baloo in the book had taught him “how to speak politely to the wild bees when he came upon a hive of them fifty feet above ground…”. But in Favreau’s film Mowgli favours a less “by your leave” approach, kicking the hell out of the honeycombs and getting stung massively in the process – until his next expedition, by which time he has invented anti-sting body armour fashioned from leaves!

You don’t have to be uncritically a fan of buccaneering entrepreneurship to enjoy this charming and stylish movie though. I did. So, I am sure, will you.