“I’m not a man. But neither am I a wolf.”
Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is one of those tales that the general public has heard of in one form or another. For many, Kipling’s stories have mainly been seen through Disney’s adaptations in 1967 and 2016. While both showcased the fun and adventurous tone of the boy raised in the jungles of India, neither stayed true to the Kipling’s dark tone, opting instead for fantastical foundations and musical numbers. Which brings us to Andy Serkis’ long-awaited directorial feature, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.
Originally scheduled to be released in 2016, Warner Bros. opted against this to avoid competition with Disney and Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. Two years later, WB sold the film’s rights to Netflix and now, it has finally debuted on the streaming platform. While many people will question why this film should have even been made – when there is already a great live-action film in existence – the answer is easy: Mowgli successfully takes a different approach to the story, ditching the music and family-friendly vibe for a more grounded, character-focused narrative.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle follows the man-cub Mowgli as he is raised by a wolf pack in the jungles of India. As he learns the often harsh rules of the jungle, under the tutelage of a bear named Baloo and a panther named Bagheera, Mowgli becomes accepted by the animals of the jungle as one of their own, but the fearsome tiger Shere Khan doesn’t take a liking to him. But there may be greater dangers lurking in the jungle, as Mowgli comes face to face with his human origins.
As stated, the biggest difference between Serkis’ and Favreau’s adaptations is that Mowgli is incredibly darker. It plays much more as a mature character study, similar to Serkis’ last big motion-capture film, War for the Planet of the Apes. The action and thrilling adventures are sprinkled throughout its one hour and 45 minute runtime but Mowgli puts the spotlight on themes of belonging, colonialism and family instead of utilizing a fairy tale/storybook plot structure.
By focusing more on the characters, Serkis is able to flesh them out seamlessly and he succeeds the most with our young protagonist, Mowgli, played wonderfully by Ronan Chand. Easily the best adaptation of the character so far, Serkis’ Mowgli is put through the ringer in this film. As the plot becomes increasingly more unrelenting, we watch Mowgli mature quickly, facing one challenge after another and Chand sells these moments of excitement, confusion, terror and acceptance perfectly. There’s never a moment where this Mowgli is allowed a moment to relax as Serkis demonstrates how brutal the jungle can be. One scene in particular has Mowgli relaxing in a stream of water. Suddenly, Shere Khan approaches and our hero hides underwater (tirelessly holding his breath), as we watch, from below, the tiger’s blood-soaked mouth redden the water as he drinks from it. It is an absolutely chilling sequence which acts as a fear-inducing message to the man-cub: Mowgli will be tracked and terrorized until he is dead.
More so even than capturing the spirit of the original stories, what sets Mowgli apart from other adaptations is its level of violence. Shere Khan, played but Benedict Cumberbatch in a magnetic and remorseless performance, has never been this scary. He kills for sport, always seizing an opportunity to cause more terror for the animals and the growing man village. Khan’s one goal in this film is to taste the blood of Mowgli and Cumberbatch has not been this threatening since his go at Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit trilogy. Even Christian Bale’s Bagheera and Andy Serkis’ Baloo have gloomier aspects to them. This incarnation of Baloo is not the free-spirited bear we know and love but instead, a drill sergeant who still cares about Mowgli, but is much more brutal in his teachings to the man-cub. Christian Bale’s performance as Bagheera and his bond with Mowgli is one of the best constructed relationships in film this year. The brotherhood these two share is inspiring as Mowgli looks to Bagheera for guidance while Bagheera seeks to protect his little brother at all costs.
Andy Serkis has become known within the film community as the king of motion-capture and Mowgli takes beautiful CGI and meshes them with their actors so well. It is as if see the faces of the performers animated into the animals that inhabit Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. These animals are strong but scarred, each having a reason for the way they act and Serkis seamlessly blends CGI and studio-built sets that showcase the dangerous but beautiful jungle.
The main drawback this film has is in its pacing unfortunately. Once again, Serkis looks to differentiate this film from Favreau’s by having Mowgli spend time in the manvillage. For the first time, we get to see Mowgli spend time with his own kind, watching, learning and taking part in village traditions. It is clear that the time spent here is deliberately meant to slow the story down, giving our characters a chance to finally breathe. However, human characters such as Matthew Rhys’ John Lockwood and Freida Pinto’s motherly figure Messua are not nearly as drawn out as their jungle co-stars.
Disney’s adaptations of The Jungle Book are some of my favourite films. That being said, after seeing what Andy Serkis’s second directorial feature has realized with the cast and story here, it would be an utter waste not to revisit this world once again. This film has laid solid foundations for what could be an enticing franchise. Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a blockbuster in every way, and it is a spectacle in both storytelling and technical talent. This violent, gritty character-study is incredibly thoughtful and, after Roma, shows that Netflix has truly established itself as a force to be reckoned within the film industry.
Rating – 8/10