By: Steve Pulaski
Andy Serkis' Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a darker, truer-to-source adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's short stories, and it quite frequently excites thanks to its detailed visual effects and strong voice acting. Where things start to crumble, however, is in the second half, when pacing becomes a serious issue — as does the mishandling of the evil Bengal tiger Shere Khan as the villain. But through and through, Mowgli impresses on a recurring basis, so much so that even against one's better judgment does someone like me wish this film could've been granted the privilege of a theatrical release rather than being delegated to a streaming platform as a precautionary measure from its studio.
Mowgli was originally slated for a theatrical release in October 2016, but quickly had to mad-dash for a new release date that would come a good two years after Disney's live-action reboot, Jungle Book, came out, so as to avoid confusion. Ultimately, Warner Bros. thought it was needless to have two unrelated Jungle Book movies released in theaters, even within two years of one another. Due to the lofty budget of Mowgli, the tough sell as a grimmer reimagining of the story, and potentially catastrophic box office results, they made the move for a VOD release. The Netflix avenue, while unromantic in its own way, suits a film like this for pragmatic reasons. Sure, the visuals would've looked handsome and inspiring on the big screen, but then again, so did those forAlice Through the Looking Glass, Pan, Tomorrowland, and Jupiter Ascending, but I'm willing to bet you weren't someone who elected to experience them in theaters. Ultimately, the poor performance of films like that — and Jon Favreau's acclaimed film — are why we have the option to watch Mowgli without driving and putting pants on.
Rather than yet again tell the story of Jungle Book, the film is adapted from other short stories by Rudyard Kipling. We follow Mowgli (played convincingly by Rohan Chand, who you might remember from Jason Bateman's Bad Words), an orphaned boy who has been adopted and raised by a pack of wolves deep in the Indian jungle. They refer to him as "man-cub" for obvious reasons. A bear named Baloo (voiced by Andy Serkis) and a panther named Bagheera (Christian Bale) have acted as wise old grandfathers to the boy, as they teach him the unwritten codes and rules of the vicious jungle. The biggest disadvantage Mowgli has is his inability to run as swiftly as the wolves who have raised him, which puts him in harms way as Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) still lurks in the wilderness. Inevitably, Mowgli must transition to life in a nearby human village, where he's taken under the wing of John Lockwood (Matthew Rhys), a British hunter determined to kill Khan.
Thanks to multiple adaptations, both animated and live-action, from the likes of Disney, you probably shouldn't be chastised too much if you thought Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle was a family-friendly film. Screenwriter Callie Kloves and Serkis, however, make it so you don't operate with that assertion for very long. The film features many scenes of violence and peril, and even physical confrontation between the animals might have you reminding yourself that they are indeed not real animals. The gravity of the violence is the most surprising detail, as animals often look mangy and even bloody throughout the film. It's a stark reminder of the hellish atmosphere of the jungle, and the kill-or-be-killed mantra that doesn't need to be spoken in order to still hold weight.
Serkis and veteran cinematographer Michael Seresin do balance out the dualities of the jungle. Some scenes embellish the setting as a boundless sandbox for Mowgli in which to learn and have fun, especially as he bonds with his wolf brothers and sisters. His best friend is Bhoot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), an albino wolf who is an outcast that doesn't find solace anywhere he goes. Perhaps it was his adorable face or the fact that my first cat was nicknamed "Boot," but I fell in love with this character. If any character in 2018 needed justice, Bhoot should be near the top of that list.
The main selling point for Mowgli, at the end of the day, is its visuals, and by and large, there's a lot to admire. The motion-capture on the animals makes them ever-so-keenly resemble their voice-actors. Bagheera looks like Christian Bale and Baloo has that unmistakable Andy Serkis face for obvious reasons. Some of the holdup with the film has been attributed to the visual effects work, with some even asserting that it still isn't polished as much as it could be. I didn't find it nearly as distracting as some of my colleagues, but I'll say this much. The issue is the same one present in films like the new Godzilla film in that when you have CGI on top of CGI on top of motion capture and so on, the artificiality of it all begins to make itself visible. But even then, the vastness of the jungle as portrayed by Serkis and company looks marvelous. Long-shots are intoxicating with their elaborate colors and hues, and the attention-to-detail on Khan's face in particular is exquisite.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle does have issues in its pacing. By the time we get to the human village, we've spent over an hour in the jungle, and while that's understandable, it makes the arc of the second half of the film feel forced and phony. What occurs for Mowgli and ultimately inspires his new perspective on his life needed more time to take form than Kloves allowed. On top of that, Khan's presence doesn't feel as large as it has in the past. Perhaps because of the abundance of Jungle Book movies, Khan's role as gone from a villain to being a narrative obligation, but for a Khan this terrifying, I was hoping for a tiger drawn with a little more than simply broadstrokes. These third-act revelations unfortunately handcuff a movie from greatness as there's enough here to recommend, but also negative attributes that just can't be ignored.
Lastly, the film's release on Netflix is ultimately a good thing. It will give people who likely wouldn't have sought it out in theaters the opportunity to watch it without potentially hearing about how it cost Warner Bros. $130 million+ in financial losses. Even Serkis himself was happy with the acquisition, as it meant he would have to compromise less artistically since conventional profit would no longer be an issue. And furthermore, we still got a pretty good movie out of it in the long run. Everyone wins.