The Pitch: Rudyard Kipling’s lasting classic, The Jungle Book, but darker. That’s right: Mowgli (Rohan Chand), Baloo (Andy Serkis), Bagheera (Christan Bale), Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), Kaa (Cate Blanchett), the whole ecosystem. Just darker. Rendered in the latest computer-generated imagery, this Serkis-directed take (originally titled Jungle Book: Origins) jacks up the blood, angst, and visual dynamism of Kipling through a Peter Jackson lens. Gothic. Pulpy. Song-free. Hip and in-your-face, as the PR might suggest. And, y’know, darker.
Barely a Necessity: Assembling a highly-regarded cast, state-of-the-art CGI, and the will to try and shake up a time-tested classic, Andy Serkis’ Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a valiant effort. It’s the kind of film where its successes are hard-fought, and it struggles to bring something new under the sun, trees, and other assorted nature. This is The Jungle Book, delivered with total earnestness.
Mowgli the man-cub, raised by wolves, mentored by a panther and a bear, avoidant of one particularly bad-mood-dude tiger. That you knew. But what you need to know about Mowgli is that it’s rather harsh in its tone. Jollity and bear necessities are absent. Serkis, along with first-time scribe Callie Kloves, shoots for something that looks to delineate the crueler aspects of man’s relationship with beasts.
Mowgli is the recipient of two hard lessons. One, he will never truly be a brother of his beastly cohorts, as he was born from the enemy. He’s also a child, one that will always be less feral, less dangerous, and slower than wolves and big cats. Two, man is a killer, the eternal alpha with fire and guns. And in Mowgli’s eyes, the hard truths that his friends are meat and trophies becomes this film’s calling card. Is it a revelation? No. It’s rather obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less felt when Mowgli witnesses especially harsh cruelties at the hands of boozy, hapless mercenaries. Intense close-ups, a somber tone, and a curious amount of blood mark Serkis’ take. Even with a PG-13/TV14, this Book has more carnage, lament, anger, and unease than prior adaptations.
Serkis whips up raw imagery and jungle madness, making his take a testament to the durability and flexible tone of Kipling, and the enduring mystique of the author’s animals. The grotesque, feral, and lawless nature of monkeys as they kidnap Mowgli? The boy’s fearsome encounters with Bagheera as the two adoptive brothers must face off so that the man-cub learns his weaknesses? Those scenes hit. This brute force take is not entirely beyond purpose. But parents: this sure ain’t kid-friendly. This is the Watership Down of Jungle Books.
Fur Real: Mowgli’s creations are the products of fully digital rendition. No puppets, no real animals with flapping CG mouths. Fully animated beasts be here, with all the requisite shading and maximum pixelated emotion one likely expects in 2018. But Serkis’ most curious move? Putting human facial expressions, specifically the bright and humanistic eyes, atop otherwise realistic critters. The actor is such a legend of the mo-cap world at this point that his particular acting contribution being the strongest is of little surprise. He pitches Baloo as a crooked-faced, Cockney drill sergeant. Jackson nerds will see a more than passing resemblance to Serkis’ King Kong work and design. Bale and Blanchett, while uneven, still manage to convey ample intrigue and use their eyes to their advantage. The only flaw is the Shere Khan design. Cumberbatch, for all his baritone, seems buried under filters and accidentally comical eyes – slanted at a 45-degree angle to add villainy. The enlarged head and the odd fit of this Khan next to the rest of the characters feels like a miss.
The Verdict: Serkis and crew take such efforts to elevate and alternate the material that there needs to be praise. Filmed in 2015, shelved to distance itself from the hit 2016 adaptation, then eventually sold off to Netflix for its current release, one can’t help but feel pity. Looking at the history of dueling concept releases (asteroid movies, CG bug movies, volcano movies, doomsday bomb movies), it’s as through Warner Brothers thought it wasn’t broad enough for a big release (or maybe Disney took away too much Kipling money for this to get big push). So here we are, with something edgy and slightly awkward.
Mowgli is not entirely recommendable, but it’s not a total bust either. The harshness, while at times vivid, just smacks of a lack of inspiration. What if it went further, one wonders. What’s the R-rated version of The Jungle Book like? You’re already going ‘dark,’ go darker. Or do something completely different. For comparison, Shakespeare updates have the courage to change time, costumes, acting styles, etc. Think about it. You’ve got the Disney-loved take already doubling down in kids hearts, so why not go nuts? Set Jungle Book in a Metropolitan zoo. Cast real animals — wait, Stephen Sommers did that in 1994. Or completely change the animals. The Jungle Book with house pets, or The Jungle Book with humans as a metaphor for the primal. Set it in modern times, buy a score from a rock band, cast Nicolas Cage, something to shake up the status quo of adaptations.
And that’s why this pitch, as carefully produced as it is, will leave many wanting. But for now, dark it is. This new Kipling, while commendable in its attempt to brood over the material, has only that to its benefit, and it grows tedious and solemn in that light. Our kingdom for a bear.
Where’s It Playing?: Netflix streaming. Theatrical exhibitions have already come and gone in limited locations in New York, Los Angeles, and other cities.