Netflix is the new home of Andy Serkis’ Mowgli, following a deal with Warner Bros.
The live-action/CGI movie – adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book stories by Callie Klovess – is shaping up to be an impressive beast, even in the aftermath of Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book remake: as well as Serkis at the helm, the project boasts a cast that includes Christian Bale as panther Bagheera, Cate Blanchett as sinister serpent Kaa, Benedict Cumberbatch as fierce tiger Shere Khan, Noami Harris as mother wolf Nisha and Serkis himself as bear Baloo. Alongside their voices are an equally promising human cast, including The Americans’ Matthew Rhys, Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto and, as Mowgli, The Hundred-Foot Journey’s Rohan Chand. Addition names on the bill include Peter Mullan, Eddie Marsan and Tom Hollander.
Nonetheless, the shadow of Favreau’s Disney hit looms large, with a box office tally of $966 million worldwide. Indeed, Mowgli was once racing against The Jungle Book to see which could get o screens first. With Mowgli resoundingly in second place, Warner Bros faced the challenge of releasing a high-cost production without the full confidence that it could avoid being eclipsed by its House of Mouse cousin.
Enter Netflix, which has bought the worldwide rights for the whole project from Warner. The deal marks a burgeoning new type of relationship the streaming disruptor has with the industry’s traditional players: Netflix has become a purchaser for projects deemed as risky by studios, offsetting potential losses by recouping production costs in a single transaction. Previous films that have taken a similar route include Paramount’s Cloverfield sequel God Particle, New Line’s upcoming Shaft, and Alex Garland sci-fi Annihilation (also Paramount). Mowgli, however, steps that role up a gear, with Deadline (which broke the news of the deal) noting that it is the biggest acquisition of a finished film by Netflix to date.
“When I came on the project, the script commissioned by Warner Bros was very close to the tone of the Kipling book,” Serkis told Deadline. “It was very focused on Mowgli, this outsider, this outcast. The metaphor for the whole movie is other-ness, a search for self-identity. In the book, he is this feral child raised in the strong traditions of the wolf pack, and when he gets to the point in life where he realises they are not his family it’s a cataclysmic moment for him. He tries to assimilate in the world of men, for his own safety. He finds there are customs that are good and bad, just like in the other kingdom, and he sets out on a journey of self-discovery to create his own morality. There is real jeopardy and consequence here, with an emotional resonance meant to be for a slightly older audience than most of the Jungle Book films we’ve seen. That was reflected in the script and how it was cast, and the whole way we approached the design of the animals. The human being and the animals are emotionally truthful, and not in any way were we tipping the wink to the audience that this is a fairy tale.”
Serkis ultimately accepted that Disney’s Jungle Book had the drop on them instead using that time to hone expensive, extensive 3D effects.
“We realised that the performance capture techniques required time in how I wanted to work in post, and we decided to let the other film have its moment,” he explained. “By that point, we’d shot the whole thing, and we did a series of pickup shots that we wanted to have in time for post production.”
Instead of the originally planned 19th October release date, Netflix will now debut the film worldwide in 2019, with a theatrical component to the deal enabling audiences to see the end results of Serkis’ 3D work.
“I’m really excited about Netflix for Mowgli,” Serkis said. “Now, we avoid comparisons to the other movie and it’s a relief not to have the pressure. I’ve seen the 3D version, and it’s exceptional, a different view from the 2D version, really lush and with great depth, and there will be some kind of theatrical component for that.”
Perhaps the more groundbreaking element of this project and deal, though, is the way Netflix is enabling an accessible release for a darker take on Kipling’s material than Favreau’s family flick.
“I never looked at it as a big blockbuster movie. It’s hard to quantify. It has the scale of a blockbuster, but it’s somewhere between Life of Pi and an Apes movie,” added Serkis. “It has that reality to it, same as Okja had. We are talking about 2019 and circling dates. Netflix has allowed the film making that I wanted to do, to exist and they’ve created an atmosphere for me kind of storytelling I set out to do.”
“What excites me most is the forward thinking at Netflix in how to present this, and the message of the movie,” he continued. “They understand this is a darker telling that doesn’t fit it into a four quadrant slot. It’s really not meant for young kids, though I think it’s possible that 10 or above can watch it. It was always meant to be PG-13, and this allows us to go deeper, with darker themes, to be scary and frightening in moments. The violence between animals is not gratuitous, but it’s definitely there. This way of going allows us to get the film out without compromise.”