'Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle' Review: Weird Flex, But Okay
Though adapted many times, Rudyard Kipling’s short story collection The Jungle Book has been defined by Disney since its whimsical 1967 cartoon, complete with singing beasts and a plucky little man cub. Disney’s 2016 live-action adaptation—also titled The Jungle Book—maintained the music and kid-friendly shenanigans of the animated classic, though its CGI animals gave it a fresh excitement. Now, Andy Serkis breaks the Disney mold with Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, a deeply gritty live-action adaptation that’s coming soon to Netflix. Be warned: you are not ready for the level of wild this Jungle Book delivers.
The celebrated motion-capture actor/ sophomore director leads an all-star cast that includes Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hollander, Cate Blanchett, Peter Mullan, Jack Reynor, and Naomie Harris. Each lends their voices to the wild CGI animals that roam the jungle alongside child actor Rohan Chand as Mowgli. The story is familiar: a baby boy abandoned in the jungle is taken in by a wolf pack, protected by the panther Bagheera and educated by a bear called Baloo. But ultimately, Mowgli must face off against his greatest threat, the man-eating tiger Shere Khan. Still, you won’t likely anticipate the level of horror, violence, and gore that Serkis packs into his daring adaptation. It’s basically Saw for kids.
The movie begins with the murder of Mowgli’s mother. We witness a woman with a baby cradled in her arms racing through the jungle, pursued by a tiger. He pounces, then mauls her to death just offscreen. Shortly thereafter, Bagheera (Bale) finds Mowgli by following a path of blood. In his first close-up, this adorable man-cub is positively caked in the blood of his dead mother. And that blood will be referred to repeatedly in taunts from Shere Khan (Cumberbatch), one of several characters who talks like a serial killer. When he tries to lay claim to the boy, the tiger sneers at the wolf pack, “The cub is mine. I have already tasted his mother’s blood.” When rebuffed, he promises, “The man cub’s blood will run down my chin!” And years later, when he once more comes face to face with Mowgli, Shere Khan taunts, “You know I can still taste your mother’s blood from the night I took her life.”
Later, Khan will maul Mowgli. And while the actual slicing of the tiger’s claw through the child’s flesh is out of frame, the resulting wound is big, gruesome, and displayed through the rest of the film. But Khan isn’t the only murderer in this movie, though he is painted as vile for his relish of it. In another unnerving scene, Bagheera trains Mowgli to hunt and urges him to show respect to his prey by staring into its eyes as the life drains out of them! Both of these scenes prove setups for a ferocious final showdown, which pits a knife-wielding child against a raging tiger. Which is all the more harrowing for its nearly realistic look. But none of this is even the most fucked up bit of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. That bit is all about Bhoot.
In the trailer, you might have noticed what seemed to be a runty white dog in the midst of pythons, and tigers, and bears. (Oh my!) That is Bhoot. Voiced by Serkis’s young son Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Bhoot is the runt of the wolf pack and is perniciously picked on by others for his size and albino-white fur. He and Mowgli bond over being different and outcasts. And whatever abuse comes their way, Bhoot is there with an encouraging word and a friendly paw. But an embarrassed Mowgli lashes out at the poor pup, chasing him off into the wild. And when Mowgli next sees his furry friend, Bhoot’s head is on a pike. Seriously. When Mowgli wanders into the hut of a Great White Hunter (Matthew Rhys), he finds sketches of wildlife alongside the taxidermied head of his best friend. Then, the boy must keep his cool as the drunken hunter rattles on about his motives for this macabre hobby, “We can’t all be scholars. God knows I’m not.”
I watched much of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle in dizzying astonishment. I thought back on its troubled path to release. Warner Bros. bumped it from October of 2016 to 2017 to October of 2018. Its Disney rival came and went to much acclaim and box office success. Then in July—just three months before its debut—WB stunned us by announcing the film had been sold to Netflix. While not exactly the same as dumping a massively budgeted, star-studded could-be blockbuster straight-to-video, it’s not too far off. At the time, I wondered why WB was bailing on Mowgli. But as I stared drop-jawed at Mowgli staring in the horror of Bhoot’s decapitated head, I understood the why. This movie is positively insane. It’s insane that Serkis decided what The Jungle Book needed was grit, trauma, and slatherings of blood. It’s insane that Serkis was allowed to make such a gory children’s movie. It’s insane that it’s rated PG-13. And it’s insane that as bonkers as this is, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is remarkably boring.
There’s menacing monkeys, a psychic snake, and a serial killer tiger, and yet this movie is woefully dull! The plot meanders from one set piece to the next with little urgency. The lack of geography in the jungle kills the tension in chase scenes. Sloppy pacing means its impossible to pin down how much time has passed between many scenes. And the characters are three-dimensional only in their animation. Save for sweet Bhoots, the wolves are mostly interchangeable, defined by being noble and little else. Pulling double duty, Serkis bleeds all of the breezy fun out of Baloo, transforming him into a growling, one-note drill sergeant. Blanchett’s Kaa is swoon and swagger but little else. And Shere Khan is starkly a villain who lusts for blood and chaos without apparent reason. Then on top of all this, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is ugly as sin.
The CGI is a bit wonky, occasionally looking roughly rendered and turning a panther-riding Mowgli into a rubber plaything. But the real problem is not of execution but design. As part of Serkis’s gritty take on Kipling’s material, he apparently desired to display the true savagery of the jungle. Our animal heroes and villains’ thick fur coats are streaked with horrid scars and scratches that bleed and fester. The hyena Tabaqui (Hollander, doing the absolute most) is a mangy critter plagued by buzzing flies. Most horrific may be Baloo. His nose is crooked and scarred. His mouth and left eye droop, his fur patchy. His lip is ragged and torn, presumably from a vicious fight. He’s actually hard to look at! Even Bhoot, who is probably meant to be cute, looks a shade creepy. That the film doesn’t achieve photo-real CGI is a blessing, because as it is it is an absolute eyesore.
Still, it’s not all bad or bonkers. Cumberbatch, whose previously lent his voice to big bads in The Hobbit trilogy and Doctor Strange, gives a deliciously devilish performance as Shere Khan. His low voice rumbles with threat then strikes with rage. Backed by recordings of real tiger growls, it’s eerie and exciting. Bale brings some depth to Bagheera and some much-needed soul to the story with a monologue about the panther’s past. For a brief scene, I went from bored to riveted as he breathed life into this uncanny valley. And Chand is an intriguing Mowgli. While Callie Kloves’ script offers little for the boy to play beyond angry or scared, Chand has screen presence and his piercing stare lands moments of horror and tragedy better than Serkis’s grisly flourishes.
So, in the end, what is this movie? It’s not one I’d recommend for little kids or family viewing. It’s too grim and gruesome for either. However, I remember fondly the movies from my childhood that dealt with death and gore: The Secret of NIMH, The Dark Crystal, Child’s Play, and any number of horror movies I snuck watching way too young. I suspect Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle will be such a touchstone. Kids will dare each other to watch it, tremble over its twisted violence, and howl over its horror. They will be scared but feel brave and even proud for having faced it. Then decades from now, they’ll giddily defend it to anyone who dares insult it, still regarding appreciation for it as a quirky badge of honor.
The other audience for this movie is likely the one still reading this review. You know Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle sounds bad. But you must see for yourself just how bad. And I get that. Here’s my advice to you: this is not fun to watch alone. It’s too slow. And when things get nuts, you won’t have the joy of turning to a friend to exchange expressions of WTF. So, if you’ve heard my warning and still want to Netflix and thrill with Mowgli, do it with a group of friends. And maybe some drinks.
Ultimately, this movie is way more fun to talk about than it is to watch. But damn, I do have a grudging admiration for Serkis taking a big swing here. A big, sloppy, senseless, ugly swing. But a big swing nonetheless.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle will have exclusive limited theatrical engagements starting November 29 in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and London. An expanded theatrical release will follow. It hits Netflix on December 7.
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