Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a curious film, following closely in the wake of Disney’s The Jungle book live-action adaptation. The Jungle Book was a much darker, fierce and immersive world for Mowgli, Bagheera and Baloo and their adventures, blending aspects from the beloved animated feature and Rudyard Kipling’s classic novel. A strong film, powered by spellbinding visual effects and realistic depictions of Rudyard Kipling’s characters, it wowed audiences with surprising dexterity in terms of its blend of storytelling and lush visuals. Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle has taken a similar stance when it comes to tone, offering a much darker and more frightening depiction in contrast with the 1967 Disney animation. Bypassing the musical aspect, this film focuses on storytelling, offering some fresh spins on the classic characters, giving more focus to the human element and wolf pack politics.
Mowgli features a stellar voice cast. Cate Blanchett voices Kaa, who has a much more prominent role in this film serving as the narrator in a strange unintentionally comical echo of The Lord of the Rings introduction. Christian Bale voices Bagheera with a thoughtful performance, Benedict Cumberbatch voices Shere Khan with villainous whimsy while Andy Serkis takes on the voice of Baloo. While accomplished actors, supporting Rohan Chand as young wide-eyed Mowgli, the casting certainly informs the tone of this film, remaining aloof, rather cold-blooded and just out of reach.
Andy Serkis, who has become Hollywood’s go-to motion capture performer, after strong performances in Lord of the Rings as Gollum, the new Planet of the Apes as Caesar and even a turn as Snoke in the latest Star Wars, The Last Jedi. Engaging in the occasional straight-up role, as he did in Black Panther, Serkis has gradually moved to the world of directing. Having made a promising and solid debut with the film Breathe, getting him to direct Mowgli, which has an array of mo-cap performances seemed like a natural fit.
The anthropomorphic element is richly detailed in terms of performance, yet it struggles to find the right balance in design, hovering precariously between The Lion King and Slumdog Millionaire. While it has flair, there’s a strange interpretation of the animals, which are made to look more realistic yet talk and express themselves with close ups in a humanoid fashion. While adding subtitles would have presented its own set of challenges instead of using English, the choice of design and language element does take some getting used to – these aren’t cartoons walking on two feet.
The tonal shifts in this film are part of the reason it struggles to establish a strong connection. Unsure of whether the filmmakers are putting a film together for an adult or family audience, they never quite strike the right balance, moving from bloodthirsty scenes to encompass lighter more cutesy Disney terrain. Having a real actor in Rohan Chand against the backdrop of so much computer generated imagery simply highlights the incongruity, making it quite alienating and difficult to accept with such a serious tone. A lighter, more charming take would have made the film more forgivable in terms of its weird visual effects, forcing one to simply accept Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle’s shortcomings in order to truly engage with the story.
The handling of some of the characters is problematic, specifically the villains, with Shere Khan portrayed as a Shakespearean thespian opposite a mangy hyena. Baloo is much rougher, a fresh change of pace from the song-and-dance version of the past, offering more of a tough love perspective when it comes to the relationship with Mowgli. While Bagheera adopts a similar cruel-to-be-kind vantage. These darker, more sombre changes and the dramatic casting don’t leave much room for the charm and lightness that uplifts and relieves.
While the character design is a bit awkward, the landscapes and backdrops are quite breathtaking. The human village and proportion of reality versus unreality helps ground the film. While too little too late, there are enough curiosities and deviations from The Jungle Book to keep one watching. While it starts off on the wrong paw, it almost makes a recovery smoothing over its fundamental flaws with time as one becomes accustomed to the environment and its limitations. Mowgli is a rickety bridge, which does have some thrilling moments, but one that you will think about turning back from on several occasions before discovering you’re across on the other side.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a misfire, struggling to shape the collective quality of its ingredients into something that captures one’s imagination to immerse you in its world. Unfortunately, its flaws serve as a series of distractions which keep you constantly off-balance, unable to be truly compelled by the storytelling. It’s not for a lack of trying, but seems to have been undermined by some fundamental choices in pre-production. Decisions around the design, rules of the language and even aligning itself with a fixed tone, would have done this film a great service. While Serkis has demonstrated that he is able to direct, and could very well be the foremost authority on motion capture performance, it doesn’t necessarily add up to a full-fledged film experience as is the case with Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.
The bottom line: Muddled