When Hollywood could not receive any more criticism on the saturation of remakes and reboots, comes a rare silver lining: Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. The Andy Serkis directed film could not come at a better time, proving that not all re-imaginings of past content are uninspired cash grabs.
The long road to Serkis’ cinematic vision for Rudyard Kipling’s classic Jungle Book has finally reached its end. Originally set to debut in 2016, the movie has not only gone through a change of release, but also changes of title and platform. Of course, this is due in part to the recent success of Jon Favreau’s live-action CGI hybrid of Disney’s The Jungle Book. Many will be quick to base judgment off the former’s heights, solely because they are live-action re-imaginings of the same material that were released merely two years apart. This is slightly unfair not only because Serkis began his work in 2013, but also because one viewing of Mowgli makes it loud and clear that an interpretation of Kipling’s work like this has never been put to screen before.
Most know the tale of the jungle-raised boy, Mowgli, who must restore balance to the wild as he is also hunted by it. Raised by wolves, his role in the jungle comes into question as he reaches adolescence and is challenged by the villainous tiger Shere Khan. While both Favreau’s and Serkis’ films both follow the story of Mowgli, only three comparisons can be made between Mowgli and The Jungle Book (2016): they feature the same characters, sport an all-star cast that completely owns their roles, and utilizes similar visual effects to enhance their stories. While Favreau struck gold when searching in the mines of remaking the Disney’s 1967 animated film, Serkis is mining in the unexplored caverns of Kipling’s original source material. What he excavates is a mature tale of finding one’s place that only furthers the limitations of what emotions visual effects can envoke. One will be pleased to see that Serkis and screenwriter Callie Kloves freshly crafted Mowgli‘s narrative distinct from previous adaptations. This praise is not from the film being the same order of story already seen before, but just more “mature”. This is a very different beast set out on its own mission. Now that this distinction is clear, one can judge if the film succeeds in what it is trying to be.
For the most part, the answer is yes. Serkis’ direction shines through the performances across the entire cast. Leave it to Serkis to firmly grasp one’s emotions via motion capture technology. It can be often hard to tell if certain mocap performances are actually brought to life through that practice on-screen. In these cases, the effects do not seem lively enough to the point where one assumes there was no actor on set. It may sound crazy, but the mocap performances in Mowgli not only somehow resemble their human counterparts, but also feel like them. The panther Bagheera bares facial features of actor Christian Bale while also emanating his well-known screen presence. Whenever the villainous tiger Shere Khan appears it feels as if actor Benedict Cumberbatch is walking around on all fours chewing up every piece of dialogue. Every minute detail in all the animals’ designs such as scars, fur patterns, and wrinkles are ever so visually crisp; only adding to how incredible everything looks. This dense style of mocap serves the heavy narrative at hand. Unlike previous versions, this film was not specifically made for children. It makes sense for the animals to feel and look more like humans. The fact that it never becomes off-putting or too creepy is a success of its own.
Highlighting the all-star cast in Mowgli is a must. One can go on about how other mocap actors such as Cate Blanchett, Naomie Harris, Peter Mullan, and Serkis himself, leave memorable impressions. However, it would be a crime to not shine a light on Mowgli himself. Rohan Chand is no stranger having memorable roles in films like Bad Words. The Indian actor is only 14 years old and he manages to carry a more adult-oriented film on his shoulders. Even though he is surrounded by big names in the jungle, he never loses the viewer’s investment in Mowgli. Yes, the A-list cast is only with him via effects, but the effects are good enough to not make the difference – and for Chand to still not let anyone steal his thunder is a feat to behold. This circles back to how Serkis tuned this cast to see and operate under his specific vision. This is where many will start to find complication.
The visuals and actors will more than likely win more viewers over than the narrative. It cannot be overstated that this film is not intended for family viewings. That decision can definitely be made and perhaps some younger viewers can learn from Mowgli‘s story. No underestimation should be taken beforehand because Serkis holds back no punches. Does he know how to create a thorough interpretation through a heavy lens? Recent filmmakers such as Zack Snyder have received backlash in the past for retelling stories that are widely known to be bright with dimmer tones. Many debate if these criticisms are fair, but in Serkis’ case he is drawing from literature that precedes the adaptations that convinced many that the material was always upbeat. His mature approach to Mowgli’s story should not be purely seen as darker, but as mature. Darker thematics are a natural part of maturity. This approach allows him to respectfully incorporate more aspects of Indian culture than any other adaptation before. This is displayed in certain key plot points, score, and depiction of Indian characters. This is perhaps the greatest beauty of the film- the filmmakers understand that this material is inherently Indian and do not shy away from displaying it. Not to say this could have not been done in a children’s film, but its inclusion in Mowgli goes hand in hand with its maturity.
However, Serkis does stumble in balancing this maturity in a thorough interpretation. In navigating the message of finding a place between the jungle and humanity, Mowgli may have gone too far. One can respect how brutally honest it is about the hardships of survival and the coexistence of man and nature. Unfortunately, the question of “was that really necessary?” rises a few times in the second half of the film. One can respect how unfiltered Serkis’ voice is, but these decisions could make or break one’s viewing experience. Even those who are not as bothered will still be left scratching their heads in the end. The plot also features more action, set pieces, and characters than one might think. This is all compacted in a little over an hour and a half by pacing that feels slightly rushed at times. Even a short amount of extra time could have resulted in more breathing room. More time could have also further explored why the film makes the few daring choices that are sure to be divisive.
Despite stumbling in the second half, Mowgli recovers in finding its footing in being the bold interpretation of Kipling’s tales that it set out to be. It does so with additionally offering excellent performances and innovative visuals. Besides stunning mocap, this has to be one of the most gorgeous looking films of the year. This will definitely be a defining moment in cinematographer Michael Seresin’s career. Not only are the colors stunningly vivid, but the creative thought put into shooting some sequences will even keep those displeased with the film onboard until the end. Even though Mowgli begins streaming on Netflix in a few days, there are limited theater engagements starting this week. One definitely should not miss the opportunity to catch such a beautiful and bold film on a big screen. Earlier this year many criticized Disney’s Christopher Robin for not trying to be what is normally expected of its original source material and the same treatment will surely follow Mowgli. With re-imaginings like these, why not bring something new or unexpected to the table? There is nothing wrong with a little divisiveness.
Be sure to catch Mowgli in select theaters or streaming on Netflix starting December 7.