Mowgli Grows Up

If you’re thinking, “Really, another Jungle Book movie?” in regard to Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, it’s understandable. After all, the two previous versions (Disney’s 1967 cartoon and 2016 live action remake) are satisfying enough to not make us crave more. Is Mowgli, which is now available on Netflix, worth watching nonetheless? Marginally yes, because it is different enough to not feel like a cash grab retread.

Based on multiple Rudyard Kipling stories rather than just The Jungle Book, and notably darker in terms of theme and mood, Mowgli is clearly for teens and adults. (It’s even rated PG-13.) The core story is narrated by the Python Kaa (Cate Blanchett) and remains unchanged. Baby Mowgli (an impressive Rohan Chand) is raised in the jungle by a pack of wolves led by Akela (Peter Mullan) and Nisha (Naomie Harris). Panther Bagheera (Christian Bale) and grizzly bear Baloo (Andy Serkis, who also directs) also mentor Mowgli, which is kind but gives the boy identity issues—he grows up thinking he’s a wolf, though he knows he doesn’t look or act the same as the pack. Thirsty for Mowgli’s blood (possibly because he killed Mowgli’s mother, which left the boy orphaned in the jungle) is Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), who believes no man should live with animals. In the backdrop is a camp of humans that includes a hunter (Matthew Rhys) who was hired to kill Shere Khan and doesn’t care about collateral damage.

Visually the film is impressive, though gloomy beyond reason. It’s hard to appreciate the animated animals when the screen is so often in darkness. The result is more murk than menace. This is especially a shame given the dazzle of other moments, like when Mowgli swims undetected right under Shere Khan’s maw. We see the tiger through the water as Mowgli looks up, and note the detail of the animation as Shere Khan’s tongue creates a ripple in the water. Great stuff.

Serkis (Kong in King Kong, Gollum in Lord of the Rings) is known as the king of performance capture, in which an actor wears a special suit that records movements that are then animated. As director, one element from his time as Caesar in the modern Planet of the Apes movies that he nicely incorporates is facial recognition, meaning if you look closely, you can see a bit of Cumberbatch’s face in Shere Khan, Bale’s in Bagheera, and even Blanchett’s in Kaa. This allows the animals to seem more human, and therefore more relatable.

It’s also worth noting that Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle doesn’t play out quite the way you expect, so yes, there’s something new here for even the most ardent lovers of the previous versions. It certainly has flaws, but watch with an open mind and you’ll find it reasonably satisfying.