Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)
Outcast. Survivor. Legend.
On paper it seems like a no-brainer: get Andy ‘Gollum’ Serkis, the most famous and accomplished motion capture actor in history, to direct a new big screen adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli stories, more commonly but incorrectly known as The Jungle Book. The stories are classics; Serkis, a phenomenal performer, can no doubt pull impressive turns out of his mo-cap cast; and the familiarity of the I.P. alone should, in theory, ensure at least a few bums on a few seats.
What a difference a handful of years and a massively successful rival production from Disney makes, eh? Finally debuting on Netflix, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a mixed bag. It’s not a catastrophe, but it hits and misses in roughly equal measure.
The film takes its cues from Kipling’s stories, so banish any thoughts of musical numbers and King Louie — this is a darker, more serious account of the foundling man-cub (Rohan Chand) rescued from certain death by the black panther Bagheera (Christian Bale thankfully not doing his Batman voice) and raised by a pack of wolves (among them Peter Mullan, Naomie Harris, and Eddie Marsan). Menace comes in the form of the crippled Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), who wants to chow down on little Mowgli, and the encroachment of humans into the jungle, personified by white hunter John Lockwood (Matthew Rhys, and you should Google the real John Lockwood to see how far off the mark this characterization is).
There’s certainly room in the cinematic canon for a Mowgli movie that’s more faithful to the source literature, but Serkis’ take falters in a number of key places. Principally, the CG animals that populate the film fail to convince, with some — looking at you, wolf pack — being refugees from the Uncanny Valley. Seriously, the humanish faces staring from the front of those canine skulls are borderline nightmare fuel. Bale’s Bagheera, the Indian python Kaa (Cate Blanchett), and a battle-scared Baloo the Bear (Serkis himself) fare better, but Shere Khan is a weirdly large-headed and odd-looking creation, to the point where you could be forgiven for thinking he’d been mo-capped by Matt Smith rather than Benedict Cumberbatch.
It’s perhaps a result of us being conditioned to expect nothing less than ‘realism’ from modern effects work — the handmade, instantly identifiable work of, say, Ray Harryhausen, or even Rob Bottin or Rick Baker, wouldn’t fly in today’s climate — only the work of the best anonymous rendering farms will do, unless we’re looking at a Tim Burton joint. Mowgli uses realistic-looking sets and locations and puts a young human actor at center stage, so the less-than-lifelike animal supporting cast simply don’t pass muster.
This has the effect of making it hard to connect emotionally with the story as it unfolds, which is a bit of a deal breaker considering the broad plot is already known to us (or at least, it should be — read a damn book), and so empathetic buy-in is essential to retain interest. Young Chand does pretty well as Mowgli, and is even convincing in the darker passages of the film (a big ask for many child actors), but the inconsistent and jarring CGI is almost constantly pulling us back from full engagement.
It’s a shame. The effort and intent behind Mowgli is palpable, but it falls well short of what it clearly wants to be — an assured, magisterial, respectful take on Kipling’s work that can stand beside and apart from the compromised Disney adaptations. Instead, it’s a curio, and one not destined to make much of a mark in the culture at large.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Travis Johnson