A new year is upon us, and very little is out in cinemas at the moment. So it’s the perfect time to catch up on films that passed us by last year. So, I watched a Netflix title I had long been interested in. And because the animated Disney film holds a special place in my heart, I decided to review Andy Serkis’ much delayed Jungle Book adaptation, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.
Mowgli (Rohan Chand) is left alone in the wild after the tiger, Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) kills his parents. The panther Bagheera (Christian Bale) brings him to a wolf pack for protection. He, the wolves and Baloo the bear (Andy Serkis) agree to raise Mowgli as their own and protect him from Khan. As he grows older though it becomes clear that Mowgli will not survive in the wild. But he is too accustomed to jungle life to live as a human. With, a human hunter stalking his friends in the jungle and Shere Khan out for blood, can Mowgli find a way to survive and bring peace to the jungle?
What did I like?
Firstly, I will briefly contextualize this review by sharing my thoughts on Disney’s live-action version of the Jungle Book. Because the Disney version had a large impact on Mowgli’s production and the audience reactions that accompanied it, so I think it bears commenting on. Personally, I found the 2016 Jungle Book disappointing. The cast was great and the mix of CGI and live action looked amazing, but the 2016 Jungle Book was a supposedly dark adult movie, that clogged up the runtime with constant references to the original movie, including bizarre out of place musical numbers and lacked any sense of threat or growth for the main character.
The Disney versions success delayed Mowgli’s post-production, with Netflix eventually claiming the rights to the film. Personally, I think this helped the film. After the safe blockbuster Disney film, I found myself craving something different. As Netflix is less restrictive (according to Serkis) this allowed the film to be just that. Different.
From the beginning this film sets a bleak tone. We see Shere Khan attack Mowgli’s parents and later threaten to kill him. Only deterred by the ferocity of the wolf pack banding together. This version is not about the Bear Necessities. This version is about survival and how harsh and unforgiving the world can be. Make no mistake; this is not a film for young children. This movie contains blood, violence that affects even the younger characters and scenes that seem ripped straight out of a horror film. There are light moments that allow respite from the horror and give personality to the characters but importantly these moments do not detract from the overall tone. They do not overstay their welcome and the brevity feels like it fits each character’s personality. It is a taxing experience but a well-done and worthwhile one.
The film’s also well crafted. Quickly absorbing us into this world. The film tells a classic underdog story. Mowgli is an outcast in both the human and jungle world but he has strong ties to them both. So he tries his best to live life his way, but the ferocity of man and nature constantly beat him down. Giving us a hero that we can easily root for and a good challenge for him to overcome. All of the supporting characters are engaging, have their own show stealer moment and feel integral to the story. And the animation used to bring the world to life looks mostly stunning.
Finally, the acting from everyone is great. All the voice actors add so much personality to their characters. Christian Bale’s Bagheera feels stately and wise, which greatly contrasts with the savage nature he tries to keep covered up. Andy Serkis gives his Baloo the temperament of a drill sergeant, an incredibly refreshing take on the character. And Benedict Cumberbatch instils terror every time Shere Khan is on screen. With his growling, angry inflections adding so much menace to him.
What I do not like?
One of the big hindrances that Mowgli has is the way it uses motion capture. The film uses facial capture technology to record the nuances of the actor’s performances. Later transposed onto animals. While this is an interesting idea, it’s practical use is quite jarring. Because the animal characters look realistic, the combination of an animal’s face with the recognizable features of a real-world actor, creates a striking disconnect that can often take viewers out of the experience.
Star Rohan Chand also shows himself to be the weak link of the film. Not to say that he is wholly bad. He does a good job for a young actor and shows that with more training he will grow to be a fantastic actor. But he is asked to convey a lot. And when he is asked to show raw emotion, he shows his limits.
Finally, the film does have some editing problems. The first half flows smoothly. But just before Mowgli’s jungle expulsion, it feels like significant portions of the movie were cut. Many crucial events are not shown. Such as Shere Khan taking over the wolf pack and Mowgli going to find his friends. We also don’t get enough time to feel Mowgli’s growing fondness for the humans in the man village. So the idea that he is the champion of both worlds does ring a little hollow. And several characters feel like they needed at least one more scene to fully realize their purpose, such as Kaa the snake (Cate Blanchett). The movie is ultimately satisfying but I would love to see a longer version.
Mowgli, at it’s weakest, shows some of the hindrances of motion capture. As well as Rohan Chand’s limitations as an actor. And the problems of not giving a project enough time to breathe in the edit. But at it’s best Mowgli is an engaging, thoughtful and terrifying coming of age movie.
Like Watership Down, Return to Oz and Dark Crystal, Mowgli uses traditionally family friendly story tropes to tell a tale for adults. It’s destined to be a film that scars children for life when unsuspecting parents put it on. But it treats its characters and mythos seriously without becoming laughably overbearing. Every one of the voice actor’s performances is amazing and invests so much personality into the proceedings. Although he sometimes struggles, Rohan Chand shows that he has a bright future ahead of him. The story and action is gripping and intense and at the core is a relatable story about an outcast finding his purpose in the world.
Verdict: (3.5 / 5)