Director: Andy Serkis
Cast: Rohan Chand, Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett, Matthew Rhys
Watch Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle online in the UK: Friday 7th December
There’s one unavoidable question when it comes to talking about Andy Serkis’ Mowgli: how long until someone mentions Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book? The answer here is 19 words and that looming shadow left by Disney’s remake, even two years on, is a both of strength and weakness for Warner Bros’ own interpretation.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle focuses less on the jungle and more on the boy, charting his growth in the wild where he’s found, taken in by a wolf pack who aren’t sure whether to accept him or not. We begin with him training to take part in The Running, a ritual that, should he win, will cement his position as one of the group, but while paternal panther Bagheera (Christian Bale) and grizzled bear Baloo (Andy Serkis) are supportive, Mowgli’s place is far from secure – not least because his presence attracts unwanted attention from Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Khan, we learn, killed Mowgli’s parents and longs to finish off his family buffet. We learn that, though, from Khan himself, who doesn’t hold back from lip-smacking speeches about tearing the boy limb from limb and tasting the blood on his chin. It’s that kind of touch that marks Callie Kloves’ script as notably nastier than you’d expect from a tale that’s been Disneyfied in collective memory since 1967. The murky tone is set from the introduction, which is narrated by Cate Blanchett’s sinister snake, Kaa, nudging us into territory closer to The Lord of the Rings than The Bare Necessities. But the fantastical natural world that forms the backdrop for this shadier adventure doesn’t always sit with that ambition – there’s violence that skews towards adult fare, but the film still has half a foot in a broader, family-friendly tale, leaving it, like its tiny hero, caught awkwardly between two camps.
Rohan Chand is excellent as the boy with clashing identities, and he benefits from having the lion’s share of the screentime, turning Mowgli from a window onto a world of visual wonders into a confused, complex character who is still figuring out what he wants. By the time he’s brandishing fire on a stick, he’s waving it around with a ferocious desperation that’s as tragic as it is stirring.
The film’s best moments see him leave behind the jungle altogether to try life in the nearby village, where he meets Matthew Rhys’ John Lockwood. Lockwood, too, is a figure of ambiguity, a seemingly stable father figure at first, and then, a cruel hunter – a glimpse of his home decor is genuinely horrifying. It’s here that Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle really stands apart from The Jungle Book, as Serkis beautifully captures the appeal of the human world for Mowgli, while not shying away from the danger that this British intruder represents. On the one hand, there’s the prowling Khan, and on the other, a gun-toting trophy collector, neither of whom chime with Mowgli’s own experience; this is a film not only about identity but also our relationship with nature and how humankind can easily harm it.
These are mature, deep themes for a family movie to navigate, and there’s some merit in the way Mowgli dives right into the thicket (although young viewers would be advised to avoid such grim viewing – it’s a 12A with “bloody images”, according to the BBFC). It’s a shame, then, that the gorgeously lensed natural backdrop doesn’t always get the close-up depiction it deserves. Serkis is a master of mo-cap, and his use of the technology gives the animals a human quality that, for the most part, matches each actor’s vocal performance; Cumberbatch’s staring, growling Khan is feral and scary, Serkis’ cockneyed Baloo is cartoonishly brash, Bale’s Bagheera is powerfully sombre, and Tom Hollander’s hyena is superbly manic. At times, though, the effects leave a lot to be desired, with wolf leader Akela (voiced brilliantly by Peter Mullan) one of a number of creatures that don’t quite ring true – a distraction when adopting such an ultra-realistic look and feel. Blanchett’s Kaa, meanwhile, has a stunningly spooky sequence that befits her silky menace, but her motivations wind up sadly muddled. For all its efforts to be complex, this Legend of the Jungle misses the more reliable consistency that goes with Disney’s simpler portrayal of Kipling’s myth.
At once impressive and uneven, the result is an origins story that consciously returns to its source material’s roots. Reimagining Rudyard Kiplings’ stories as primarily about a young boy torn brutally between two worlds, that more intimate scope occasionally glistens, but Mowgli ironically struggles to find its own identity in the darkness.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungleis available to see on the big screen in London’s Curzon Victoria – for information about its cinema release, click here.