When it was announced years ago that Andy Serkis (yes, that Andy Serkis) would be making a film based off of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book it looked like we’d get two major blockbusters going head to head as Disney had their version coming as well. What happened, however, is that Serkis’ version got stuck in development while Disney’s came out as a roaring success. Given that, WB kind of backed off the Serkis version, now called Mowgli, moving it over to Netflix instead of giving it a wide theatrical release.
It makes sense. It’s hard to compete with a hit when you don’t do much to differentiate yourself. Yes, Mowgli is more in line with the original book, but I’m not sure it makes it that much different on the whole. That’s not to say it is bad, just that I understand why the held off a bit. In fact, Mowgli‘s greatest weakness has nothing to do with its quality, but in the simple fact that you feel like you’ve seen this story so many times before.
Director: Andy Serkis
Release Date: December 7, 2018 (Netflix)
It’s been a good long while since I even glanced at the pages of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, but considering that it’s a collection of short stories I find it odd that once again the overall plot of a movie based on it is basically exactly the same. Mowgli (Rohan Chand) is a baby when he is found in the jungle by Bagheera (Christian Bale), who takes him to a pack of wolves to be raised by them so that the evil tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) won’t kill him. Years later, Mowgli, having grown into a young boy, begins to notice the differences between him and his adopted family, though Baloo (Andy Serkis) is trying his best to teach him to be a wolf. Everything goes to hell when Shere Khan returns and Mowgli is forced to join the rest of mankind.
Mowgli is definitely a darker take on the subject matter then we’ve seen before. The film takes some very troubling turns that honestly push it away from a children’s film and into a more serious narrative. Disney’s most recent live-action film also pushed boundaries, but it stayed firmly kid friendly — Mowgli doesn’t. The film delves much deeper into Kipling’s themes of leadership, belonging, and abandonment than Disney’s and yet at times it seems to be trying too hard to be edgy. Still, at least it makes the movie feel slightly different. Actually, while the film as a whole feels like the same story we’ve heard so many times there are easy to see plot changes and other shifts.
One of those is Baloo, who is less a lazy bear, and more a gruff-but-friendly teacher in this take. While the majority of other characters play down to their role, Serkis’ Baloo feels like a fresh take for the character on film. He is also the most well-acted animated character, which should probably be expected given Serkis’ ability to turn CGI into magic. The film’s ending is also a bit of a tonal and dramatic shift, with more attention being paid to the humans-in-the-jungle side of the equation and a focus on an imperialistic hunter who has come to kill Shere Khan. In the end, you get a weird feeling of watching the same story, but with a different plot. It works for the most part.
What doesn’t always work is the CGI. It’s not bad, but compared to other recent animated animal films it definitely has a straight-to-video feel. The motion capture for the animals’ faces often hits an uncomfortable uncanny valley that makes you feel like you’re watching one of those face merge apps push an actor’s face onto an animal’s. It’s often painfully clear that some of the actors are better at motion capture than others. Bale’s Bagheera often seems stiff and awkward and the wolves’ long snouts don’t really lend themselves to the technology. Still, once you get used to the strangeness the performances get a chance to shine through, and they’re good.
That’s especially true of Chand, who acts most of the film on green screen with people dressed up with dots on their face thanks to motion capture. His Mowgli is fantastic. In a situation where most child actors probably couldn’t muster one layer of depth, he produces a performance that’s incredibly nuanced. If this had been given a bigger push by Netflix or a full theatrical release I could see folks talking about Oscar nods for him. It’s a strikingly powerful turn in a movie that needs a lead this strong to make it work.
Serkis should also be given credit for elevating a child actor. Often directors don’t know how to pull good performances out of children, but he clearly does. His direction overall, in his second effort as a director, is strong. It does feel like he gets a bit stuck in the motion capture weeds every so often as he seems intent on showing off his performers as animals, but on the whole, the film keeps pace and he delivers what is needed.
Mowgli feels unnecessary on the whole, but that doesn’t make it a bad film. There’s definitely an attempt to bring something new to the story even if it never feels all that fresh. It’s an interesting take that never becomes something stellar, but Chand’s performance makes it work in the end. For a film about where we belong and human connection, it’s probably appropriate that the only person on screen for the majority of the film actually steals the show. I think, actually, the most honest critique I can give of the film is that it’s perfect for Netflix. There’s nothing too special about it, but if you’re sitting at home looking for something good to watch it will definitely more than do. Mowgli is the streaming Jungle Book, and there’s nothing wrong with that.