Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, out now on Netflix, is stuffed to the gills with life. Each encountered beast, from a world-weary Indian wolf to a vengeful elephant, could easily ground their own theoretical chapter.
Ultimately, it’s for the bes. To director the credit of Andy Serkis, whose journey as the motion-capture actor behind Gollum, King Kong, and Caesar in the rebooted Apes trilogy landed him in the director’s seat, the film doesn’t linger on any one animal. It’s titled Mowgli for a reason.
The film, based on Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli stories, puts the young boy (played by Rohan Chand) front and center. Raised by wolves, as well as a well-meaning bear and black panther, Mowgli is wild as can be, but struggles to gain the acceptance of the pack; no amount of training can obscure the fact that he’s still human. Then there’s the matter of Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), who killed Mowgli’s mother and has it out for the kid, too, endangering the pack by association.
Though, as in Disney’s adaptations of The Jungle Book, the animals speak and cooperate with each other, the tone of Mowgli hews a little starker. That isn’t to say that this is a “dark and gritty” read on the material; rather, it’s still a fairytale, but one clearly conscious of its roots in British Imperialism in India. The root of the conflict between man and beast has as much to do with the inherent divide between walking on two legs and four as much as the way that the spread of civilization (at least as defined by the British Empire) threatens to erode and irrevocably change nature.
The story aside, the film is also beautifully acted, featuring terrific vocal performances from the likes of Christian Bale, Naomie Harris, Eddie Marsan, Tom Hollander, and Serkis himself. However, their motion capture performances are rendered almost irrelevant by CGI that hinders more than helps, which comes as a surprise given Serkis’ status as the reigning god of mocap.
There’s something uncanny — and not in a good way — about the faces of the animals; the impression they give off is of animal skulls molded to look more human, with curiously dead eyes then superimposed onto the skin. It doesn’t particularly help that the film favors a realistic visual approach, in which the skin and scars on the animals reinforces a grotesqueness that extends even to the animals that are meant to be cute.
Given how much time Mowgli spends with the animals, the style (or lack thereof) of the animation is a misfire that nearly topples the entire film. It also makes it all the stranger — and much more compelling — when Mowgli is finally thrust into the human world, where non-CGI domesticated animals roam. That it’s the most interesting sequence doesn’t feel like a coincidence, nor does the fact that the Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle’s other big human presence, Matthew Rhys as the hunter John Lockwood (named after Kipling’s father), is its most intriguing secondary character.
When Mowgli finally encounters other humans, Serkis’ strengths as a director become more apparent. The boy’s alternating fear and curiosity are palpable, as is the fact that he is the primary focus of the story rather than an accessory to playing around in the jungle. Though jungle politics play heavily into the story, they mostly dovetail with Mowgli’s dubious status in the pack, and fade away completely when he finds himself cut loose. The human detour is also played almost like a silent film, focusing on Mowgli’s sense of wonder.
It’s the kind of reverence that would usually be played the other way around, i.e. with such awe reserved for the jungle rather than the human settlement, and though it seems like a stretch to say the reversal was intentional (there’s no world in which the animals weren’t meant to be at least a little appealing), it still works. By virtue of being real, the people are much more colorful, and convey a sense of life that the CGI animation in this particular film just doesn’t.
The voices are the saving grace to the animal side of the story. Bale in particular is wonderful (even if there is a hint of Batman to his Bagheera), as is Hollander as a manic striped hyena, to the point that it’s worth wondering if Mowgli might not have fared better in an audio medium. As it is, separate from whether or not it’s a good movie, it’s unclear who Mowgli is meant for. It’s not quite kid-friendly enough to appeal to The Jungle Book’s audience, and a little undercooked to totally land with adults.
Most crucially, the film never quite lands on a solid answer as to how real it wants to be. The level of violence is striking — the animals fight amongst each other, as well as with humans — and articulated in such a way that seems directly contrary to the elements of fantasy that are inextricable from the source material. Like its protagonist, the film seems caught between two worlds in almost every sense. It’s too real, yet not real enough, but affords Mowgli more time in the spotlight than any adaptation before it, and in doing so, differentiates itself from its predecessors as well as earning a place in the pack.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle arrives in theaters on Nov. 29 and begins streaming on Netflix on Dec. 7.