Warning: Minor spoilers ahead for “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.”
The latest adaptation of “The Jungle Book” is the Andy Serkis-directed “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle,” which enjoyed a limited cinema release this week before its official Netflix debut on Friday.
Serkis’ film follows Rudyard Kipling’s original story more closely than, say, Disney’s live-action remake from 2016. It’s a grittier, more mature look at beloved characters like Baloo the bear (voiced by Serkis himself), Bagheera the panther (Christian Bale), and the titular “man cub” Mowgli (newcomer Rohan Chand).
While the film certainly has a similar premise – an orphaned Indian baby is rescued by a panther and hunted by a tiger – its heart lies elsewhere. Mowgli’s relationship with his adopted family, a pack of wolves, is his main source of both inspiration and distress. Later, the young boy leaves the jungle and joins a small village, unsure whether he belongs with the humans.
Why you should care: It has an all-star cast and the bona fide king of motion-capture as director.
In addition to Serkis’ Baloo and Bale’s Bagheera, Cate Blanchett took on the mysterious role of Kaa the snake, while Benedict Cumberbatch is in full-on villain mode voicing and performing the infamous tiger, Shere Khan.
The list doesn’t stop there. Naomie Harris – of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Skyfall,” and “Moonlight” fame – is the voice of Raksha, Mowgli’s adopted wolf mom. Freida Pinto makes an appearance in her own human body, as does Matthew Rhys.
Serkis is, of course, best known for some of cinema’s most iconic motion-capture roles: Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings;” Supreme Leader Snoke in the new “Star Wars” trilogy; Caesar in “Planet of the Apes;” and Captain Haddock in “Tintin,” among others.
If you’re going to trust anyone with a live-action (read: CGI-dominated) version of a feral, tangled fantasy with talking animals, it would have to be Serkis.
Serkis’ vision for Kipling’s classic tale has been nearly seven years in the making. In fact, filmed in 2013, it was originally helmed by Warner Bros. and intended to be Serkis’ big directorial debut. With so much time in post-production, “Mowgli” was practically bursting with potential.
What’s hot: The fresh script, the young lead, and the movie’s nuanced interest in larger themes
To be sure, any Disney adaptation will be somewhat watered-down, which means that both already-popular versions of “The Jungle Book” are less than faithful to Kipling’s original characters.
Warner Bros. and Netflix have no such problem, which means that “Mowgli” is dark and mature – more so than audiences might expect from a movie named after a character who, at this point, is most famous for singing, “Forget about your worries and your strife.”
Callie Kloves’ excellent script, which places Mowgli in early 20th-century India, is certainly not the sun-dappled story of a boy and a goofy bear whistling show tunes.
Instead, the movie opens with the grisly, violent murder of Mowgli’s parents. It throws the young boy into countless kill-or-be-killed scenarios. It happily explores larger themes: the duality of man, the desire to belong, the questionable nobility of tradition, and the nature of family, to name a few.
The celebrity voice work is generally fine – Bale, in particular, is excellent – but newcomer Rohan Chand is the one who truly shines. He is passionate and desperate. He throws his whole body into the physically demanding role, spitting lines from his chest, and makes this fresh take on an old role aggressively convincing.
What’s not: It’s not clear who this film was made for – and the visuals, which should be its biggest draw, feel largely undercooked.
As the New York times points out, “the filmmakers are clearly trying to bring an uncommon maturity to the fantasy film,” at which they succeed in many respects.
But that very maturity condemns “Mowgli” to exist in limbo: It’s arguably too bloodthirsty for younger audiences, but its association with a cartoonish children’s story might make it unappealing to adults. It’s not clear who, exactly, this film was made for, and “Jungle Book” lovers will likely be torn by the result. Serkis’ grungy, hot-tempered version of Baloo, for example, struck me as disorienting and unpleasant.
“Mowgli” seems stuck, unable to reconcile its reputation as a lighthearted, family-friendly cartoon and its desire to be a gripping, emotional action-thriller.
And so it ends up feeling more like an existential crisis with no clear selling point – bogged down by a predictable hero’s arc and undeveloped character motives. (I still don’t totally understand why Kaa wanted to protect Mowgli, or why Shere Khan even cared so much about killing him.)
On top of it all, none of the animals look particularly convincing, especially in comparison to the superb visuals put forth by Disney’s “The Jungle Book” not too long ago; at times, the wolves literally appear to be unfinished.
The bottom line: We didn’t really need this movie
It makes sense that “Mowgli” finally found its home on Netflix. You don’t have to organize a family outing, or pay ghastly ticket prices in order to see it; you don’t even have to leave your bed.
Ultimately, it feels like the type of movie that people will shrug and click on because they can’t decide what to watch and have nothing better to do, which isn’t necessarily an insult. It’s enjoyable enough, and could certainly be a worthy use of your time (if a boy raised by wolves befriending a man who hunts animals for sport and the subsequent moral dilemma is, you know, your kind of thing).
It just seems unlikely that anyone will leave this movie having gotten exactly what they wanted.
“Mowgli” begins streaming on Netflix Friday. Watch a trailer below.
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