Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)
Director: Andy Serkis
Screenwriter: Callie Kloves
Starring: Rohan Chand, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Naomie Harris, Andy Serkis, Peter Mullan, Jack Reynor, Eddie Marsan, Tom Hollander, Matthew Rhys, Freida Pinto
Andy Serkis’ darker take on the story of “The Jungle Book” by Rudyard Kipling was sold by Warner Bros. to Netflix as a result of a protracted production phase that began all the way back in 2015 and the studio’s belief that audiences would have little appetite for the story after Disney’s huge success with their musically inspired cartoon remake The Jungle Book in 2016. Judging by what was on offer in Mowgli, they had every right to be doubtful of its credentials.
Serkis’ more adult take on the classic story was one he insists was always intended for a PG-13 (12A) rating, the deal with Netflix allowing for him to pursue the more adult themes of the non-PG landscape due to the company’s lack of interest in a box office run, but Mowgli was ultimately left stuck in the middle of the two ideals: it was too young for old audiences and too old for young audiences. Unlike the Disney remake, the magic of a film aimed at children was absent from Mowgli, while it simply wasn’t established or mature enough to truly hit home with adults.
Legend of the Jungle ironically felt rushed from a production standpoint, the editing being some of the most frustrating in all of Netflix’s releases this year, the story failing to connect in some of its most intense or intimate of moments due to the movie’s lack of an identifiable pace and an apparent absence of the ability to maintain themes and emotions between sequences at many key stages.
The editors seemed to have a hard job on their hands however, with the script being unexpectedly drab and cliche-ridden. It took nearly 40 minutes of montages and training sequences to truly grab a hold of any meaningful character connections or a reason to care about the movie beyond that of its truly outstanding motion capture work, the film to that point seeming like a random collection of events the filmmakers seemingly intended us to care about without ever giving us a reason to. As a result, connections seemed forced and the more deep-rooted moments of conflict from the novel seemed slapped on top rather than firmly established, and while the editing certainly didn’t help in this regard (it suffered from the same needless slow-motion as Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2010), for example – quite a damning comparison), it seemed quite clear that the production itself was also left wanting many a time.
In this respect, the dialogue in Mowgli was almost astonishingly reductive, with the words spoken by the lead character seeming like something out of a piece of your most cliched classical poetry rather than anything remotely realistic or identifiable, something the film at no point established through a well-read or philosophical mother or father figure from whom Mowgli could learn such expressions. There were moments in the film where the dialogue of the lead was so utterly out of the actor’s age range that you could almost hear the collective groans of those watching the movie at home. We get it Mr. Serkis, the child has never felt a part of his pack. His saying so as if reading a letter addressed to the Queen is hardly necessary, nor were the mountains of other expository lines that made up seemingly three quarters of the entire film.
In contrast, from a visual standpoint Mowgli promised a lot and, in many ways, it delivered. The motion capture work for the mammals of the piece in particular was phenomenal, the texture of their fur and whiskers being some of the best put to screen by means of this technique yet. By far the most impressive aspect of this was how the eyes of the creatures radiated life, something the film cleverly highlighted on multiple occasions through the presentation of good versus evil through a ‘hunting to kill versus hunting to eat’ metaphor. With the strong narrative motivation of showing the audience how Mowgli was taught the difference between good and bad by his mentor figures, this highlighting felt natural and all the more powerful as a result, but sadly it was one of the very few aspects of the picture that truly astonished.
Unfortunately, for all of the great technical achievements in the motion capture of the animals, the sets of Mowgli felt cheap and insincere. Despite filling the frames with life, the sets themselves felt almost entirely absent of it, their soap opera lighting almost shouting “sound stage” out of the screen. It’s understandable from a business and humane perspective why they wouldn’t want a small child running through a rain-soaked jungle, the crew in tow, but films like this are about achieving the illusion of reality and therefore encouraging you to suspend your disbelief, and in this respect (as with the editing and dialogue) Mowgli failed. It simply lacked the authenticity or the beauty to inspire awe.
The score worked in much the same way as the visuals, much of its effect being decimated by the stop-start sensitivity of the piece, the above average work of Nitin Sawhney drifting between the genuinely affecting and something closer to soap opera, never quite finding its feet amongst the CG leaves of the forest floor.
By the same token, the acting of the piece offered mixed messages with the central cast of motion capture voice artists – especially Christian Bale as Bagheera and Cate Blanchett as Kaa – being utterly fantastic, while the work of Rohan Chand in the central role took a lot of getting used to as it fluctuated between genuinely convincing and quite clearly read expression (though much of that was the fault of the dialogue written for him).
For a film that asked its audience to take it seriously and bring different expectations to it than the 2016 Jungle Book movie, Mowgli genuinely didn’t deliver in many storytelling or production aspects compared to its Disney branded brethren, which when combined with a sincere lack of fun and an ever-shifting tone, made for a much more tedious viewing experience.
Mowgli is hardly the critical hit Netflix had been hoping for when they dedicated millions of dollars to an Oscar campaign, but be sure to look out for it in the visual effects category come February. Big cats, wolves and bears aside, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a mess of a movie stitched together with great trepidation in a very poor edit, a huge swing and a miss for Serkis and Netflix that never quite found its tone, fleshed out its themes or worked out which audiences it was intended for.