I was excited to see Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, even after Jon Favreau’s blockbuster adaptation of The Jungle Book a few years back. When I learned a darker version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic story was bound for Netflix I quickly made sure it was on my must-see list for the year. Having actually seen it now, I’m of a slightly different mind about the approach and liberties taken with such a well-known story of finding your place in the world. This isn’t a bad movie; far from it. It’s got action, drama, comedy and incredible creature animation, and I rather enjoyed seeing how differently the familiar story beats played out.
And, despite its legacy, this definitely isn’t a movie for younger children; there’s no singing or dancing or any of the whimsical sequences people will know from Disney’s previous iterations of this story. There are some very sinister, violent, powerful and moving scenes throughout this version, though even with these welcome changes I couldn’t help but feel the filmmakers were holding back.
Directed by Andy Serkis (best known for his motion-capture roles in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the recent Planet of the Apes films, and for acting in Marvel’s Black Panther) this version retains much of the classic story’s beats as we follow the story of Mowgli (played by talented newcomer Rohan Chand), a human boy raised by wolves deep in the jungles of India. The film opens with the death of Mowgli’s parents at the hands of Shere Khan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), a vicious tiger who violates the law of the jungle by killing the animals that travel with humans.
Bagheera (voiced by Christian Bale), a kindly panther, rescues the orphaned child, this “man cub”, before Kahn can eat him and takes the baby to a wolf pack to be raised and protected. Khan soon discovers the boy’s location and after being told by wolf pack leader Akela (voiced by Peter Mullen) the child is under pack protection, Khan vows he will find and kill the child.
In addition to avoiding death at the hands of Khan and passing a difficult test that will make him a proper member of the wolf pack, Mowgli must also discover his place in the world as he finally realizes he is, in fact a human, and not a wolf while learning the ways of the jungle. Thankfully, he’s got friends aiding him on his journey, including Bagheera and Baloo (voiced by Andy Serkis), a bear who teaches him the ways of the jungle. He also has the aid of the ever-watchful Kaa (voiced by Cate Blanchett), the hypnotic python who sees the past and future.
The film then moves forward in time with Mowgli now roughly 10 years-old living with his wolf pack family and playing with his friend Bhoot (voiced by Louis Ashbourne Serkis), an albino wolf who, like Mowgli, is a “freak” in the eyes of the pack. Mowgli is at a stage of his life where he – like all wolves of the pack – is preparing to pass a trial that will determine whether or not he can stay in the pack. Under the training of Baloo and watchful eye of Bagheera, Mowgli trains to become a permanent member, though due to his obvious physical differences from wolves, he learns to train for the obstacles of the trials by utilising the advantages of his human body.
Meanwhile, Shere Khan hasn’t given up his quest to end Mowgli’s life and breaks jungle law to attract the attention of the nearby human village, bringing further chaos to the jungle’s fragile equilibrium. Bagheera decides that having Mowgli stay with the pack is too dangerous, ordering the boy to leave for the human village. This sets off a series of events that sets Mowgli on a path of betrayal, loss and acceptance sure to test every lesson learned before meeting his ultimate destiny.
The film does a great job of building up a familiar story to an expected final confrontation between our young hero and his cursed rival that will test every skill and lesson learned throughout his adventure. It might also test your credulity at the resolution as presented here. I won’t spoil the ending, but even if you put aside the idea of a young child able to talk and live with jungle animals, the conclusion is still a bit too much to accept. Our heroes’ victory, while crowd-pleasing, is so implausible given the setup of the film’s story along with the skills and strengths of the characters, that I walked away feeling cheated of a proper ending.
Given Mowgli’s resourcefulness, agility and will to survive he could definitely have won the day. Yet the way his actions are portrayed onscreen I couldn’t help but feel the little boy should have been killed as the way he chose to face Shere Khan would have resulted in instant-death, no question. Perhaps given the darker elements of this story I’d foolishly imagined that Serkis would have really upended whatever expectations of a “happy ending” we’ve been programmed to expect. Given everything he’d been put through up to this moment such a decision might have resulted in a more powerful ending. Who knows.
Visually, this film is brilliantly realized with stunning CGI animation bringing these jungle creatures to life in convincing ways (hardly surprising given Serkis’ unparalleled expertise in motion-capture), a feat that’s overshadowed only by the brilliant performance of Rohand Chan. You really feel the emotion from the boy as he unleashes his anger and feelings of helplessness on his friend Bhoot or want to cry with him at his silent acceptance at the unexpected death of a loved one. See this movie for his performance alone if you have to.
Overall, I enjoyed Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle – even if there moments when it felt like the movie was holding back from its true potential. With spectacular animation and impressive cast this really is an entertaining retelling of the Jungle Book that will appeal to an audience craving a more adult theme and feel, so much so that I’ll caution those parents who might mistake this for Disney’s recent remake of the same story, as some of the darker moments and violence here are worlds apart from that film. It really is amazing just how different the exact same story can seem when told by two very different directors, and how easily one version doesn’t necessary replace the other. If you’ve got Netflix queued up and are willing to give Andy Serkis’ vision a try, you may like what you see.