Try to imagine, for a moment, the dismay at Leavesden when Warner Bros. realised that Andy Serkis’ take on The Jungle Book would not only invite comparison to a Disney animated classic but also that studio’s hugely successful remake. Despite some flaws, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle deserves to be judged on its own merits, of which there are many. This Kipling adaptation takes time to get used to but is generally worth the effort.
Filmed in 2015 and repeatedly pushed back from release – until Netflix bought the completed feature earlier this year – Mowgli has long been touted as a much darker offering than anything from the House of Mouse. That’s only half true. Whilst Serkis’ film is bloodier than that of Jon Favreau, it’s no less light of touch. Indeed, the maturer strains here only seem so when placed in comparison to the impish slapstick that they succeed. There are comical monkeys, cute cubs and chases akin to scenes in George of the Jungle and, tonally speaking, The Phantom Menace. Likewise, the film’s not-quite-photorealism gifts its action a whimsical tone, bolstered by shimmering, crepuscular lighting. Serkis’ motion capture animals add to this, feeling more like fantasy hybridisations than real creatures of the wild.
Gorgeous that the overall aesthetic is, it can only be appreciated after period of disorientation – a stumble that is not always conducive to maintaining the attention of streaming viewers. After such an opening, the film has to do a lot of leg work to bring its audience back, and won’t succeed with all, but stick with it. The more Serkis strays from tradition, the more engaging his film becomes and the less distracting his uncanny visuals appear. Mowgli’s jungle is lush but there’s bite behind the beauty.
For about an hour, Callie Kloves’ script plays out largely unaltered from her predecessors. Rohan Chand – ten, at the time of filming – makes for a winning lead as the man cub Mowgli, who is rescued from Benedict Cumberbatch’s menacing tiger, Shere Khan. by Bagheera the Christian Bale voiced black panther. Raised by wolves, Mowgli spends much of the film in something of an identity crisis – ‘I am not a wolf but I am not a man’ – which is heightened by his having to face the worst of both the animal kingdom and human domain. The nature of belonging is one of a number of strong themes here, each admirably approached, and has resonance in a shifting world.
Things take more of a left turn when Mowgli comes face to face with the English hunter John Lockwood (named after Kipling’s father and played by Matthew Rhys). Moral dilemmas await Mowgli in the human village and by far the most startling moment of the film comes as he is introduced to the world of taxidermy, which has rarely seemed more repellent. Matching this, Serkis’ animals are much more rugged than those of Favreau’s jungle, with his own scabbard – oddly cockney – Baloo far removed from cuddlier personifications past. In this jungle, survival is the sole bare necessity of life and does not come easy.
Admittedly, the film’s dog-eat-dog atmosphere does sit at occasional odds with its more youthful tone. The air of wonder captured by Nitin Sawhney’s brilliant score prevents Serkis’ action from ever feeling especially threatening, whilst the addition of prophetic visions, courtesy of Cate Blanchett’s waspish Kaa, reminds too much of Narnia to be taken as an adults-only film. That said, it’s hard to believe that there isn’t an audience out there for whom this will work.