REVIEW: Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle — Directed by Andy Serkis.

I feel so bad for Andy Serkis. Back in 2014, Andy Serkis, who, in spite of some secondary or assistant positions on other films, had never directed a film before, was hired to direct Warner Bros.’ CGI-heavy version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Though the studio had been in talks with prominent directors since 2012, it was Serkis who was eventually chosen to bring this film to audiences around the world.

Actors were hired. Principal photography was completed. Release dates were set. Originally planned for 2016, the film, now known as Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, would end up being pushed to, first, 2017 and, then, 2018. Though the studio may not agree to this in public, the push was, at least in part, due to Disney beating Warner Bros. to the punch with Jon Favreau’s magnificent The Jungle Book, which was released in 2016.

When the then-still-unreleased Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle was sold to Netflix a few months ago, Andy Serkis could no longer call it his directorial debut, and, before Netflix released the film to its subscribers, the next CGI-retelling of a beloved film that Jon Favreau, the director who had beat him to the punch with Kipling’s stories, was working on had its first teaser trailer ready. Timing really isn’t on Andy Serkis’ side, and, unfortunately, though his Mowgli may be more memorable than Favreau’s stunning The Jungle Book, it is for all the wrong reasons.

Andy Serkis’ Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle has the same basic story that you know if you are even just a little bit familiar with the Disney-version. Mowgli (played by Rohan Chand) is a ‘man-cub’ who has been raised by wolves in the jungle after his family was killed by the Bengal tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).

Though he has lived with the pack of wolves for many years, Mowgli is still a liability for the pack because Shere Khan still wants the man-cub. Bagheera (voiced by Christian Bale), the panther that found Mowgli when he was a baby, wants Mowgli to go to, and stay in, the nearby human village where he would be safe, but the man-cub doesn’t want to leave the jungle for good even though the tiger sees red when it is near the man-cub and the pack.

So, before I go any further, I should mention that this isn’t Disney, in case you hadn’t understood that thus far. You won’t get to hear Baloo break out into song, instead, you’ll get to see him push young wolves around and bark orders at them as they prepare for a wolfpack-defining ‘run.’ There are no Disneyfied songs, the beating heart and lovable humor are gone — Serkis has not adapted Disney’s version of the film. Andy Serkis’ film is based on Kipling’s stories and it is much darker and, yes, bleaker than anything the Favreau film presented you with.

You’ll remember Serkis’ film for the blood in it, the open wounds on Mowgli’s arm, the animal cadavers in the jungle, the cruelty of man, a heartbreaking ‘twist,’ and, well, the CGI-effects (more on that in a moment). The honest truth is that I would never advise parents to show this film to their kids when Favreau’s film exists, is widely available, and hugely popular. You see, I think there is a moment or two in Serkis’ film that could scar some young kids.

The heartbreaking ‘twist’ in the film isn’t entirely unpredictable, but the scene, which I think will be nightmare-inducing for some kids, made my blood boil. If your kids see this scene, they may scream, they may cry, and I don’t blame them. It’s a gut-punch that I won’t forget anytime soon. But the problem with Serkis’ film isn’t just that it is unfit for kids and families, who ought to be the target audience for a film called Mowgli in this day and age.

Though the jungle in Serkis’ film looks great, not all of the animals look right. Sure, most of the animals look like they should from afar, but then you get up close to them and you rightly start to notice the oddly human features on their faces. Though Christian Bale gives a good performance as Bagheera, you may have a hard time staying focused on the film when the panther’s face is in close-up.

The facial features are distracting, but it is even worse with the iconic character Shere Khan. Cumberbatch isn’t bad as the iconic Bengal tiger, but his performance doesn’t compare well to the performance given by Idris Elba in Favreau’s Disney film. Cumberbatch’s tiger is at times cartoonish, and I thought the CGI-creation of Shere Khan had moments when it looked too much like a creation — it looked more like an animatronic tiger than an actual tiger in some shots. I thought the look of him was jarring more often than not.

But even though Cumberbatch’s performance doesn’t fare well in a comparison with Disney’s film, I thought both Christian Bale’s Bagheera and Cate Blanchett’s Kaa were superior to the versions of the characters present in Favreau’s Disney film. As for Mowgli, it pains me to say that I didn’t care about him. His character is unlikable in this film, and, though the acting performance isn’t weak, Chand didn’t win me over.

The film isn’t without its moments, though. The moment that worked best for me, which I thought was tense, terrifying, and exciting in all the right ways, was the moment in which Mowgli dives into some pool of water but he is unable to come up because Shere Khan suddenly drinks from the water. As he drinks, blood pours from his mouth down towards Mowgli’s nervous face. It’s a stunning moment of tension that Serkis masterfully takes us through, but, on the other hand, I thought the focus on watching the soul disappear from the eyes of slowly dying animals was a step too far for Serkis’ film.

Andy Serkis’s Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a violent and bloody retelling of the Kipling stories, but I’m not sure who it was made for. Some kids will be scarred, parents will likely stick to the Disney film, and grown-ups that may be interested in another retelling likely won’t get much out of this film either unless they are disinterested in the Disney version.

With that having been said, I can’t say that it is a bad film. It isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, but Andy Serkis’ Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is an adequate but unspectacular alternative to the extraordinary and kid-friendly The Jungle Book that Jon Favreau made for Disney in 2016. I’m just not sure I can recommend it to anyone when Jon Favreau’s film exists.

6 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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