Andy Serkis has always been a versatile character for over a decade giving us some of the most iconic motion-capture characters ever put to film (Gollum, Caesar). Now, after years a waiting, his passion project, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, has finally come about to provide a dark take on the Jungle Book tale.
What’s the Story: In this fresh take on Rudyard Kipling’s classic story, young Mowgli (Rohan Chand, Bad Words) is a “man-cub” that was raised by a wolf pack in the jungle of India where he’s learned to survive by Bagheera (voiced by Christian Bale) and Baloo (voiced by Serkis). But when the fearsome Shere Khan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) wants to hunt Mowgli, he must decide what it means to find his true self in the jungle.
Being his sophomore effort in directing after last year’s Oscar-bait Breathe, Serkis’ take on the Jungle Book sounded interesting when first hearing about it. But two things had me worried before watching this: This is coming out two and a half years after Disney’s version, which was fantastic, and Mowgli was originally gonna be released in theaters back in October. Why wasn’t it? Warner Bros. sold it to Netflix in July and instead release it on the streaming service. With a movie that’s been in pre-production for a long time come to fruition, this origin story still ends up becoming underwhelming.
From a directing standpoint, Serkis knows how to make a film beautifully stunning, even if it’s all done from a soundstage or in the locations of South Africa to have the look feel like a genuine environment with Michael Seresin’s cinematography.
The voice cast was fine for their vocal performances. There’s Bale, Serkis, Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett as Kaa, Peter Mullan as Akela, Naomie Harris as Nisha, Jack Reynor as Brother Wolf, etc. Though I was thrown off by Serkis’ voice as Baloo with some kind of Cockney accent. Chand did a pretty good job playing the titular character and was able to show off a range of emotions throughout. He was also able to stand on his own working with CGI animals for most of the movie.
But if you’re looking to watch Mowgli with the family, this probably isn’t the right movie to sit through. Knowing that this was a dark retelling, the movie honestly didn’t have any purpose for being dark. The dark tone wasn’t working all the time since there were moments that will take some viewers off guard. Blood might play a factor in a couple scenes.
The visual effects is an element that was a mixed bag. I didn’t think it looks polished from the first trailer in the first place. Sometimes the CGI for the animals are pretty realistic, but it’s when it shows Baloo or Shere Khan where it looks fake and almost unappealing. This relied more on motion-capture performances and it was a bad choice on Serkis when the movement doesn’t feel natural.
Even the script by first-timer Callie Kloves, daughter of Harry Potter screenwriter Steven, doesn’t leave much to be desired. The story provides some new elements like with Mowgli in the man village with Matthew Rhys and Freida Pinto (wasted with little to say), but it felt unnecessary in here when it detracts when we want to see more of the jungle. At that point, you’re just waiting for the climax to appear. It lacked a strong heart and sense of fun.
Comparing this to Jon Favreau’s take is inevitable since the 2016 version is more superior in many ways. For starters, it’s great on a story aspect, its Oscar-winning visual effects, better vocal performances, and a feeling that is way better than the animated movie. Serkis’ Mowgli has all of these elements, but it’s shown in an engaging fantasy. If these two came out the same year, I think we all know who would win.
If this was still released in theaters, this probably wouldn’t perform well at the box office regarding of who’s behind it. But also, who is this movie aimed for? Probably not for kids since it’s PG-13, but anyone who enjoys dark re-imagining of stories that peaks with any audience.
Not to say Mowgli is a full-out disaster, but it should’ve been so much more coming from someone like Serkis. There’s an ounce of promise somewhere, and it would’ve been an awesome take on Kipling’s story. My advice is to enjoy Disney’s version and feel something special from that. And if you didn’t like it, waste your time with this then.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle lacks anything really special with an uneven tone and mildly passable CGI for a re-telling that comes off as pretty unimpressive.