Review: Mowgli – Legend of the Jungle

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A project much devoted by its director, Andy Serkis, but plays out as quite forgettable.

Human child, Mowgli, has grown up amongst the wolves of the jungle, fully embracing them as his family. But when a vicious tiger seeks to end his life and any who protect him, the animals of the wilderness seek to reunite him with his own kind.

Several years ago now, Disney Studios announced a live action remake of their much beloved The Jungle Book movie. Sticking to their acquired rights and formula, the 2016 film was a massive success, fleshing out the story further and using state of the art animation for a “live action” appearance to the animals.
At the same time, however, actor-turned-director Andy Serkis has also announced another “live action” telling of the Rudyard Kipling story, touting it as being more faithful to the original source text than the Disney version. Certainly, locking horns with Disney over an intellectual property hardwired into the minds of families across generations is a bold move.
It seems though, Warner Brothers buckled to Disney’s threat. Originally set for a wide cinema release in October 2018, the studio sold to Netflix with fears of under-performing at the box office (certainly WB have nursed several wounds from Disney in recent years). As such, the rights were sold to Netflix for a wide release, while the film was shown in bespoke theatres in America and London.

Not exactly the greatest fanfare for such a star-studded movie.

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The casting for Serkis’s version is nothing to shake a burning stick at: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Naomie Harris, and Benedict Cumberbatch, all lending their voice talents to the various characters. So how does it perform? Well…
After a sluggish, all-too-familiar start, the film’s second half does try new things with the character of Mowgli and his divided nature of man and wolf. It certainly is a decent attempt at creating something beyond the musically-inclined Disney experience with the material. As hardwired as that Disney magic is for a lot of us… You do have to do some disconnecting to appreciate this.
But director Andy Serkis touted his movie to be “darker” than the 2016 Disney product, and honestly, despite the earlier film’s necessity to have musical numbers from its predecessor, it wasn’t exactly happy all the time. Moments of terror obviously circulate around the character of Shere Khan, the vicious tiger. While you start off trying to ignore Cumberbatch’s Smaug voice from The Hobbit coming out of the tiger, Idris Elba’s 2016 portrayal had far more intimidating (and memorable!) moments. The character of Kaa is portrayed in almost exactly the same fashion in both movies. No more or less threatening.
There seems to have been great pains made to distance the film from the Disney movie, most present in the portrayal of Baloo (voiced and motion-captured by Serkis himself) who is more like a drill sergeant than a friend to Mowgli. Impressive how so little can be felt for a character, especially one Serkis is embodying.

As aforementioned, the first half of the film is much the same as the Disney original and the 2016 remake. While the remake made use of a drought plaguing the animals’ home, this film merely refers to a “poison”. Literal or metaphorical, we aren’t sure. There is also a moment when Mowgli is being pushed out from the wolf pack, and obviously is upset, but only snaps at his one friend after a separate scenario with the monkeys. The structure of the story felt clunky here.

Also the character arc for Bhoot was so obvious. He was just so happy and optimistic all the time. Man, it sure it great being alive isn’t it? Life is so good, because we are all alive and such.

But during the second half of the movie, we do get to see the human tribe, and Mowgli’s experiences there. The story flirts with the concept that man is no better than the most vicious animal, but with the film’s run time of only one hour and forty minutes, it isn’t given much time to develop. A noble development for the story to be sure, but not handled in the best fashion.

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Voice talent and animation… honestly, you could expect more from a team with Serkis at the helm. Shere Khan just looks strange, it is hard to say why, but the eyes looked far too wide? Serkis’s Baloo was underwhelming. Christian Bale as Bagheera was perhaps the most stand out, his voice was quite undetectable. Young Rohan Chand did well as Mowgli, acting alongside – undoubtedly – Serkis and Cumberbatch in mo-cap suits with conviction.

Honestly, moving it to Netflix was probably a wise decision. For a production that was supposed to be “more accurate” and “darker”, it didn’t feel like especially either. It did not have any moments that stood out to me, and inevitable comparisons to the 2016 movie will deem it forgettable.
If you hate all things Disney, check it out! If you want to see a slightly different, less-sing-song approach to the story, also check it out. But if you had high expectations for the director and cast, maybe dial them back a bit.

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