The much-delayed Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle finally arrives on our screens via Netflix and a limited cinema release. With a host of diverse filmmakers – from Ron Howard to Alejandro González Iñárritu – attached to the film at various times, the long-gestating project heralds Andy Serkis’ second feature as director following Andrew Garfield-starring biopic Breathe.
Originally scheduled for release back in 2016, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle was set to clash with Disney’s live action Jungle Book update, directed by Jon Favreau. But when two similar movies turn out at the same time, one will inevitably sink without trace. For example, not many folk will remember the 1991 Robin Hood movie starring Patrick Bergin that could not escape the shadow of Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, despite beating it to theatres by a month. However, they might recall the irony of the tables turning two years later, with Costner on the receiving end, his three-hour Wyatt Earp biopic getting upstaged by George P. Cosmatos’ rollicking Tombstone.
In reality, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle distances itself from the Disney iteration in much more than calendar months. Working off a script by Callie Cloves, which cleaves much closer in spirit to the original Rudyard Kipling stories, it has a strange combination of magical realism and a dark through line. Likewise, in changing the title from the uninspired original Jungle Book: Origins, Mowgli ensures there is no further confusion between itself and The Jungle Book (2016) or The Jungle Book (1967) or The Jungle Book (1994) or any of the other nine adaptations. To say this story beats a well worn path is at best an understatement, but Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle’s dark sensibility at least strives to make things different.
Mowgli (Rohan Chand) is an orphaned boy, lost in the jungle following his parents’ death. He is taken in by a pack of wolves, Bagheera the panther, Baloo the bear and other jungle inhabitants, and protected under jungle law. As Mowgli grows up under Bagheera and Baloo’s tutelage, he must learn how to become a full member of the pack and avoid the deadly intentions of the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch).
The effects work and motion capture are excellent, as you would expect from a Serkis joint, and although the style takes some getting used to, the anthropomorphised animals are expressive and engaging. They give a light and upbeat style to the film, early on, as it blurs the lines between live action and animation. While this is certainly one of Mowgli’s biggest strengths, when the film starts to move into darker areas, the tonal opposites do not fit well together.
By and large this might be to do with expectations. Breaking out of the mindset of the traditional family friendly story might make the darker elements more palatable, but Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle has problems with the balance throughout. There is at least one sequence so badly misjudged as to be quite disturbing. It’s the sort of thing you might expect to see in Tobe Hooper’s back catalogue, rather than in a film about a doe-eyed menagerie, and it sticks out like a splinter.
Rohan Chand gives a spirited performance as Mowgli, nailing both the earnest and angry sides to his youthfully volatile personality. On the voice acting side of things Christian Bale exercises restraint as Bagheera, while Benedict Cumberbatch is appropriately menacing as Shere Khan, despite there being little difference between this and his performance in Peter Jackson’s The Desolation of Smaug. Serkis himself opts to play Baloo with a thick East End accent, sounding like he’d be more at home as a geezer on the set of a Guy Ritchie movie than the Indian jungle.
At its end, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a bit of an oddity. It presents all the hallmarks of a family film, yet flouts them regularly with a harsh dose of reality that will prove too distressing for younger viewers. Time may well be kinder to Mowgli with more distance from its more iconic predecessors, but for now the darker elements feel just that bit too dark, and unable to mesh with the humanised animals and breezier universe that is first established. Whether or not audiences respond to a gloomier take on a story that has, cinematically at least, always been lively and upbeat, remains to be seen.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★☆☆☆
‘Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle’ is currently streaming on Netflix right HERE.