While many of us remember Mowgli as a fascinating fairytale about a boy raised by kind jungle animals, the book by Rudyard Kipling is not something that little children should read before going to sleep.
Kipling told a story that focused on many themes including abandonment, human nature, and even imperialism. The latest film adaptation of “The Jungle Book” focuses more on overarching themes such as the importance of family, need to belong, and traditionalism.
Here’s a review of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle which is trending on Netflix.
What’s good: a great story wrapped into a gritty atmosphere
One of the strongest aspects of the film is its script. Written by Callie Kloves and revised by Andy Serkis, the story heavily explores the desire of a human or animal to belong somewhere. It is not your typical coming of age story. There are new characters who represent the evil nature of imperialism and civilization as well as some events (involving other human characters) that do not convey their purpose well enough for us to care.
Callie Kloves is a rookie screenwriter, and it shows. Serkis most certainly aimed at sophisticated ideas and topics yet the screenplay does not reflect his vision and makes it quite messy. While critics will talk about the history of Rudyard Kipling’s book and its hidden messages, average moviegoers will be confused.
Kloves delivers a script that works and allows Serkis to tell a well-structured story that has a character with a defined arc and interesting dialogues. However, the script (or execution of it) does not work on a higher level.
Mowgli is a young child who lives through several terrible, life-threatening events at the beginning of the movie. Serkis does not take his foot away from the gas pedal and constantly throws the protagonist into one turmoil after another.
Our hero is dirty, often miserable, and stoic despite his young age. His search for a true family is what drives the plot and makes him risk his life trying to protect himself and those he loves.
The setting is wildly different from what you would expect from a movie about Mowgli. Serkis tried very hard to create something that would appeal to both adults and teenagers but failed to find that sweet spot between dark grittiness and fantastical elements. The atmosphere and the looks of the jungle are both way too dark for children.
At the same time, adults won’t be impressed by the lack of graphic violence and CGI realism. As a result, a beautiful yet terribly bland atmosphere starved of any magic and tonal consistency.
Tonally, this movie is all over the place and lacks thematic purpose. As you watch the film, you wonder why it was made in the first place.
The acting of actual people in the film lacks that convincing quality that allows for an immersive experience. It is hard to avoid comparisons with the live-action “The Jungle Book” produced by Jon Favreau where the child actor was one of the undeniable highlights. While Rohan Chand (Mowgli) in the Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle delivers a good enough performance, it fades in comparison with the work of other actors.
Some argued that putting a child actor in a movie with many dramatic, stressful moments was not a good choice by Andy Serkis. Disney had a clear vision of the final product when they made their iconic interpretation of the book by Rudyard Kipling. They wanted to make a light-hearted cartoon for children with songs and dances. It was an excellent fit for a younger audience.
Serkis decided to deviate from this scheme and create something much darker. Was it a good idea to cast a very young child with his more adult-oriented vision in mind? The juries are still out on this question.
Despite conflicting tones and decisions made by the filmmaker, the movie has a charm that you cannot deny. The pacing is uneven with action sequences and somewhat disturbing imagery abruptly breaking the much slower pacing of quiet moments.
Nonetheless, the storytelling feels natural and cohesive. The structure of the film and its adult themes make it easier for viewers to understand what is going on.
What’s bad: CGI, action, and underdevelopment
Despite being in slow-burning production hell for over seven years, the film does not look “finished” and looks uninspired when compared to the recent live-action remake of the Disney’s classic “The Jungle Book” by Jon Favreau. Andy Serkis either intentionally wanted to make CGI characters uncanny by making faces of animals resemble features of voice-actors, or he was simply “done” with the project after so many years and just did not care anymore.
The lack of passion is reflected in the use of CGI. A decade ago, this level of special effects and animation would be mind-boggling. Today, it is subpar at best, especially when compared to both “Life of Pi” and “The Jungle Book” in terms of rendering and animating CG characters.
Bagheera and Baloo look especially weird and uncanny. Shere Khan is a massive tiger that has a lot more weight and presence when he appears in any scene. However, facial animations immediately break the immersion, and you start focusing on some expressions that are absolutely unnatural.
Action set pieces are done both on location and in pavilions. Differences are easy to spot if you are a movie geek. However, the green screen, character movements, and the blending of CGI with practical effects are all convincing enough. The sad thing is that “enough” is not enough for the modern audience spoiled by grandiose CGI fiestas thrown by modern blockbusters.
Another thing that may be boring for both adults and children is action. While most set pieces and corresponding action sequences are done well, the lack of energy and the gritty tone of survival action may be off-putting for adults and too scary for children.
People called action pieces clunky and “hard to watch.” Fight scenes with animated CG characters do look weak compared to what we are used to in regard to high-budget films. Mowgli won’t join the Avengers team anytime soon.
The final nail: why and why now?
The production of the film took over seven years. It is a very long time. However, it still feels rushed and unpolished. Perhaps, another couple of weeks in post-production could make the film better, but the real issue is that the film was released right after the recent Disney’s live-action remake. Jon Favreau managed to capture the magic of the original cartoon and created a good story that was warmly welcomed by both critics and moviegoers.
Warner Bros made a series of weird decisions regarding the release strategy and missed the mark even harder than Serkis.
The memory of this success is fresh. Many people wondered whether Andy Serkis created a rip-off. It is hard to expect an average moviegoer to research the history of a smaller film made by a debuting director. If Warner Bros could wait for a year or two, we could be talking about this film differently. It wouldn’t be an undisputed classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it would be judged as a completely separate entity instead of a possible derivative of a recently successful film by another filmmaker.
What makes many critics and fans of Andy Serkis scratch their heads is that the film is aimless. It wants to be a complicated story with dramatic plot twists and larger than life themes. Sadly, to its detriment, it bites more than it can chew. The attention of the filmmaker wonders from one topic to another. Was this film about family? Was it about imperialism and politics? Was it about a boy discovering what it means to grow up? It’s so hard to tell.
With better-defined themes and a more focused plot, the film could be better. All other pieces are in place: CGI is quite good, actors deliver memorable performances, and technical aspects like sound design, cinematography, and makeup are all great. Just a little bit more polish around the edges and themes would make the whole thing much more palatable. As it stands now, the film is a good exercise for Andy Serkis and proves that he can produce a solid movie.
The verdict: It’s fine… mostly
Fans of Andy Serkis and his impressive motion-capture work in many cult films made fans eager for his directorial debut. The problem is that his project took too long and did not have a distinct focus. The saving grace of the movie is voice acting and motion-capture done by Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchet, Christian Bale, and Andy Serkis himself who definitely knows how to direct his actors.
All in all, the movie deserves your attention. However, it was a good move by Warner Bros to give the movie to Netflix. It would be a total disaster at the cinema yet it will not disappoint if you watch it at home without paying for the ticket.
This review reflects the opinion of the freelancer who wrote it.