Much like its protagonist, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a film that is ultimately impacted by forces beyond its control. Earlier this year Netflix purchased the distribution rights of the highly anticipated and frequently delayed Warner Bros production. Despite the star-studded cast assembled for Andy Serkis’ adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s stories, its proximity to Disney’s own live-action film The Jungle Book, which was released just two years ago, is hard to ignore.
Serkis’ film is a much darker tale than the bouncy Disney version, though the story remains mainly unchanged. After Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Bengal tiger, breaks the sacred laws of the jungle by killing humans, the soul survivor, a baby named Mowgli, is adopted by a wolf clan headed by Akela (Peter Mullan). Taught the ways of the wolf pack under the watchful eyes of Bagheera (Christian Bale) and Baloo (Serkis), a black panther and sloth bear respectively, an older Mowgli (Rohan Chand) must navigate the various animals in the jungle while simultaneously avoiding the blood thirsty Khan.
When a series of events result in Mowgli spending time with his fellow humans, he realizes that he can only delay his destiny for so long. A time will come when must decide whether his loyalties are with the animals or mankind.
Given the more serious tone of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, it is hard to pinpoint who the target demographic for this film is. It is too dark for younger audiences and lacks the levity and character depth for older audiences.
This is a film about a boy bridging two worlds and feeling like an outsider in both. Serkis is fascinated with the politics of the two worlds that Mowgli finds himself torn between, but the rules of either realm are never quite clear. The “laws of the jungle” are sacred one minute, but conveniently ignored the next. The same can be said for the humans who cage Mowgli like a violent savage but are quick to teach him how to uses a knife the minute he is released.
The real strength of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is its visuals. Serkis brings a rare sense of warmth when his lens focuses on the humans in India. These scenes are fleeting though as the film prefers to revel in the bleakness of the violent jungle. It is in this fight-or-flight landscape that the visual effects truly resonate. The creatures all have distinct personalities in their movement, and the film does a wonderful job of paying great attention to the most miniscule details in the foreground.
Despite the strong rendering of the animals, Serkis’ cold approach does not provide enough reasons to invest in Mowgli’s journey. This dreary tale may be closer to Kipling’s original stories, but it leaves one feeling the Baloo Blues.