Mowgli review: Netflix’s retelling of The Jungle Book lacks the bare necessities that made its predecessors great
Netflix's Mowgli does not wash away the lingering bittersweet aftertaste of Disney's The Jungle Book but instead adds to the bitterness and removes all traces of its sweetness.
castRohan Chand, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Naomie Harris, Andy Serkis, Matthew Rhys, Freida Pinto
Dark is in. It has been for a while — in both cinema and TV. Filmmakers, in recent years, have even taken beloved children's classics and given them a darker, edgier twist — hoping to provide fresh context and a re-examination of something supposedly familiar. As films like Red Riding Hood (2011), Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) and Maleficent (2014) have shown, these fresh takes on old properties are anything but spectacular — with no emotional resonance or charm whatsoever.
Netflix's Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is just the latest addition to this list.
Andy Serkis’s retelling of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book is all grit and no glee, a lot of fury and little fun. The film does not wash away the lingering bittersweet aftertaste of Disney's CGI-heavy version but instead adds to the bitterness and removes all traces of its sweetness. While Disney's fun-loving Baloo sings up-tempo tunes about the "Bare Necessities" and frolicks amid nature with Mowgli, here, he is replaced by a drill sergeant-like bear — seemingly possessed by the spirit of JK Simmons in Whiplash — who pushes his student beyond his physical limits to the point of exhaustion and injury.
By doing this, Serkis excludes a major chunk of the audience who enjoy films about talking animals — children. Swamped by its own mythology and trading all its niceness for nasty, Mowgli hence feels more like a black-and-white Xerox copy of Kipling's original work. Callie Kloves’s screenplay is certainly more faithful to the source material than the Disney-fied predecessors but it's a more selective kind of loyalty — retaining the tone and themes but taking liberties with certain narrative elements.
As always, we dive into the lush green tropical rainforests of India where infant Mowgli is adopted by a family of wolves after his parents are killed by the villainous Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch channeling his inner Smaug again). He is taught the laws of the jungle and raised under the watchful eye of his mentors — the black panther Bagheera (Christian Bale), the wolf pack leader Akela (Peter Mullan) and of course Baloo (Serkis).
However, Mowgli suffers from an identity crisis — between "man-cub" and "wolfchild" — with his conditioned animal traits and his innate human traits in conflict. Finding it hard to keep up with the faster and stronger inhabitants of the jungle, he is drawn to the "civilised" humans of the nearby village.
Here, he is taken in by the gentle and caring Messua (Freida Pinto) and the British colonialist-cum-hunter John Lockwood (Matthew Rhys) — two characters that are not fully fleshed-out but are supposed to symbolise the moral dichotomy of good and evil. His repatriation into human society is, however, halted by a nightmare-inducing discovery in Lockwood’s trophy room.
Hounded by the determined Shere Khan, Mowgli is soon forced to not only embrace the duality of his identity but choose between the two worlds and discover where he truly belongs.
There's a defiant darkness to Mowgli that was deliberately factored out in previous child-friendly adaptations of The Jungle Book. It's similar to the tone and approach taken in the cinematic treatment of Marvel Comics by Disney in contrast to DC by Warner Bros. Mowgli's gritty overtones and its complete lack of levity remind you of DC EU ventures like Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) — films which neither appeal to kids nor the more mature, sophisticated adult audiences. After all, Mowgli too was produced by Warner Bros, who curiously (and now understandably) sold off the international distribution rights for the film to Netflix.
It is such a pity when you consider the dream voice cast assembled by Serkis for the film. Cumberbatch earns his stripes as Shere Khan; Bale brings an emotional gravitas to Bagheera; Cate Blanchett perfectly captures Kaa's ambiguous intentions and captivates with her narration; Serkis's Baloo is no Caesar but it is a fresh take on the usually jolly bear. And Rohan Chand, in a non-CG role, admirably showcases the titular character’s despair, fear and vulnerability.
But these performances lose their credibility due to the film's dated special effects. Serkis wants to capture the humanity in all his talking critters with motion-capture but instead, ends up with jarring, and often distracting, CGI. The animals look like they went through a Get Out-like insidious experiment with their bodies enslaved by celebrity voices.
Ultimately, Mowgli is undone by its own seriousness and self-importance. It doesn't want to be just another film about the simple bare necessities that makes you forget about your worries and your strife. It aspires to be THE universal coming-of-age tale of self-discovery and that is its folly.
Of all the versions of The Jungle Book, Mowgli sure is the runt of the pack.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle will be released globally on Netflix on 7 December.
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