Years ago, motion-capture performance legend Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings, Planet of the Apes) had the idea to create a live-action adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. With his expertise in mo-cap, Serkis gathered an all-star cast to play the animals in the story, and the stage was set for a groundbreaking technical and cinematic achievement. But along came box office juggernaut Disney with their version of The Jungle Book, beating Serkis and company to the punch, raking in over one billion dollars, and sweeping award shows for the incredible technological feat of their hyper-realistic animal characters. Serkis’ project was shelved, its future uncertain.
It’s been over two years since then, and Netflix has decided to give Mowgli a chance at life, releasing the film onto its streaming service this weekend. I’m certainly happy that they did – Mowgli is a wildly different interpretation of the source material, and any need to compare it to Disney’s recent version can be ignored within the first few minutes. Serkis’ take on the story of the legendary man-cub is far darker than any seen before, it’s a bloody and violent tale of survival in a harsh world. Mowgli has plenty of time for the usual themes and ponderings on belonging and finding your place between two worlds, but its primary focus is on what it’s like to live in an indifferent, kill-or-be-killed environment.
The story is more or less the same as its always been. After the death of his parents, a small child by the name of Mowgli (Rohan Chand) is left alone in the jungle. A powerful but kind panther named Bagheera (Christian Bale) decides to care for the boy, bringing him to a wolf pack to be raised as one of their own. Mowgli must learn how to survive in the jungle, a task much easier said than done, especially when he’s being hunted by the bloodthirsty Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), the tiger that murdered his parents. Luckily, he’s got a few animal companions on his side, including Baloo (Serkis) the bear and Kaa (Cate Blanchett) the python.
The plot deviates from what most audiences may be familiar with, that most likely being Disney’s animated and live-action versions. Rather than having Shere Khan chase Mowgli out of the safety of the wolf pack and into the jungle early on, turning the film into an adventure flick of sorts, the entire first half keeps Mowgli at home, with Shere Khan appearing every now and then to stir up trouble. The film takes its time showing us Mowlgi’s life in the jungle, trying to fit in with the other wolves and learning how to hunt and survive.
It’s able to establish his relationships with his animal friends by spending time with them, setting the audience up for later heartbreak and strife. The performances are strong, and Rohan Chand’s portrayal of Mowgli is incredibly vulnerable – a constant reminder that, raised by wolves or not, he’s still just a small child in a cruel and violent jungle. Thanks to the film’s technical wizardy, the animals actually feel like they’re really there taking up space.
That’s not to say that the digital effects are perfect. In what is probably a combination of a lower budget and the misfortune of coming out after Disney’s technologically-groundbreaking achievement, the motion-capture performances of the animals are a bit iffy, especially in the first half of the film. Shoddy editing constantly cuts back between Mowgli himself and the computer-generated animals, rarely showing the two of them in frame together, and it’s a distracting reminder that the effect isn’t always quite as magical as it should be. It’s not exactly terrible, in fact, the mo-cap performances seem to improve as the film goes on (or maybe I simply got used to it). Thankfully, the acting and story make up for whatever technical faults the film may have.
Mowgli is a genuinely terrifying film, and the darker and more violent elements of it may make parents rethink having their children watch it. It’s shockingly bloody, the animal violence pulls no punches and the wounds inflicted upon them actually stick. But this is the entire point of the movie – it’s a survival story told through the eyes of a small child. Mowgli has to learn how to be a predator or else he’ll end up being the prey, and his struggle not just to live but to come to grips with the reality of having to kill, is a harsh and quick lesson in growing up. The second half of the film keeps Mowgli in the man village, and while it certainly dwells on the man-cub’s sense of where it is he belongs, it also, unlike other interpretations of the story, has plenty to say about the cruelty of man, and how little difference there is between them and the beasts of the jungle.
Despite some less than stellar technical effects, Mowgli is a gripping and compelling film. The boy’s relationships with the animal characters drive the emotions throughout, and Serkis’ insistence on not shying away from the bleak and violent elements of the story sets this adaptation apart from the rest. The cast easily rivals Disney’s, even surpassing it at times, and Serkis’ mastery of the artform is on full display; the animals are able to realistically emote with ease, allowing the performers to act without constraint. My only hope is that this version of the classic tale doesn’t get forgotten – its darkness is heavy but there’s beauty within it.
4 / 5 Stars
Mowgli is now streaming on Netflix.