MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE: This ain’t your Disney Jungle Book, and that’s wild

The timing of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle was not in Andy Serkis’ favor. While the identity is undeniably varied, Jon Favreau’s version is still fresh on viewer’s minds, making this an uphill climb.

Serkis attempts to produce an innovative version of an adapted story and film, and while there’s a lot of rough edges, it is still a form worth seeking, largely due to Serkis’ resolve.

The film is narrated by Cate Blanchett, who plays Kaa the snake, and this choice instantly made me reminiscent of Lord of The Rings. Luckily, she’s got a great voice for it, and her telling of the story (in short wisps) worked. Her character is a sort of prophet, watching over the jungle.

Through the magic of motion capture, for which Serkis is the master of, we can witness what some of Hollywood’s best would look like as creatures of the jungle. While this technique might be somewhat diverting at times, I still love the use of it, even if there are arguments on both sides that I find valid. Sometimes the animals end up coming across as creepy, but it adds to the vibe that’s seemingly intended.

This isn’t a story that’s new to the cinematic world, and the first half is mostly spent replenishing audiences with the basic ingredients.

After Mowgli’s (Rohan Chand) family is killed by the villainous tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), he is brought in by the protective Bagheera, played by Christian Bale, one of the better casting choices. Though unorthodox, the wolves vote to raise him as one of his own, primarily by Nisha (Naomie Harris) and Vihaan (Eddie Marsan).

Andy Serkis plays Baloo, the famously known and usually singing, bear. In this version Baloo offers Mowgli teachings, but he’s more of a drill instructor than the versions delivered before. His son, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, plays a Bhoot, a runt among the wolf cubs, who is often bullied for his lack of skills. He’s one of the softer characters, angling more on the cute and wholesome part, and he delivers on that.

The jungle’s inhabitants are under Shere Khan’s thumb, much to their dismay, and Mowgli especially doesn’t quite understand. As he becomes more aware of the interworkings of things, he’s also forced to confront the truth about himself: he’s human. Does he belong here? The film does a great job encapsulating the environment, the beauty and danger of the wild.

As the tale shows, there is cruelty in all walks of life.

Among the evil there is also kindness. We all have the capacity. After his introduction to the human world, Mowgli tries to adapt.

As he spends more time and discovers some difficult truths about some of his newest acquaintances, he begins to realize who he truly is. In the human villages he meets the gentle Messua (Freida Pinto), and the starker John Lockwood (Matthew Rhys), eventually proving to be alternating sides of the humanity spectrum. Though they have limited screen time, they’re both standouts.

There are some harsh realities uncovered, and this adaptation isn’t pulling its punches with musical numbers or recurrent jokes. This is a dramatic familial tale that happens to be filled mostly with animal characters, and what makes this story one that’s continuously remade is the deeper themes in motion: family, identity, freedom, and ultimately love.

It doesn’t matter if the movie takes place in a jungle, or if the believability of the events treads a thin line. It is a young boy discovering who he is. That is always relevant.

There is also a visible and vicious threat with the rules of the jungle, tackled sharply in the script by Callie Kloves.

There are real stakes. In this, I applaud the decision. The original story, a book by Rudyard Kipling, is still very visible here, but the creative flourishes work in its favor. This jungle has laws, and that’s more clear here than in the 2016 Disney film.

Serkis clearly knows this form of effect, and that skill shows, with his own portrayal of Baloo. It’s also evident that some actors are more comfortable than others. Cumberbatch utters a convincing menace (even if I preferred Idris Elba as the main villain), and Cate Blanchett’s snake is equally formidable. Meanwhile, Bale’s emotion forces through as Bagheera, the reluctant but ultimately altruistic panther.

The young Rohan Chand gives a sincere, doleful performance. His slow build over the course of the film allows for some believable emotion and growth. As the face at the center of this chronicle, he’s able to embody the bold young boy at a crossroads with veracity.

Mowgli has a lot of problems, ones that don’t ruin the experience, but definitely impede it. The biggest is an inconsistency with pacing and tone. There are some sections that could have benefited from a quicker resolution, while others a longer one. I think Andy Serkis has the aptitude for directing, but I think the fact that this movie came after the Disney juggernaut made the blemishes that much more visible.

INFO:

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action violence including bloody images, and some thematic elements)
Genre: Action & Adventure, Animation, Drama
Directed By: Andy Serkis
Stars: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch
Written By: Callie Kloves
In Theaters: Nov 29, 2018 Limited
On Disc/Streaming: Dec 7, 2018
Runtime: 104 minutes
Studio: Netflix

CRITIC REVIEWS:

David Sims
The film feels painfully incomplete, from its frequently told story to its weak visuals.

Barry Hertz
Too terrifying for children, too boring for adults and arriving far too soon after a nearly identical project, Andy Serkis’s Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a frustrating, fascinating mess.

Adam Graham
“Mowgli” wasn’t done any favors by happenstance. But even on its own it comes up short, lacking some of the bear necessities needed to tell this tale.

Soren Andersen
“Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” is a bloody good version of “The Jungle Book.” And I do mean bloody.

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