No matter how you cut it, adapting the same material already adapted by Disney will be difficult. Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle always faced an uphill battle. Not only did Disney make Mowgli a household name in the 1967 animated film, but they came out with their own live action version of The Jungle Book in 2016, leaving Mowgli to be easily confused and forgotten with the incredibly successful Jon Favreau-directed film.
Andy Serkis, famed motion capture actor and newish director, tries to go back to basics. His story is adapted directly from Rudyard Kipling’s story, and there is certainly no singing or dancing. The most puzzling aspect of Mowgli is its PG-13 rating. Widely known in popular culture as a children’s story, this version is much darker and more violent. Besides the lack of songs or humor, the animals all look battle-worn, with scars and tufts of fur missing. There’s not much sugarcoating of how wild this world is. When they get in fights, characters bleed and make others bleed, eyes are swollen and scars stick around. Multiple animals have slow deaths, where we watch the life fade from their eyes, and at one point the snake, Kaa, strangles monkeys. There are moments darker and more violent than that, but none that can be mentioned without spoiling the plot.
All that to say, Mowgli seems too dark for a children’s movie, and clearly isn’t trying to be with its PG-13 rating. But neither does it seem interesting enough for a grown-up film. Even if it’s not based on the Disney classic, we all know how the story goes. There’s an evil tiger named Shere Khan, Mowgli is torn between the jungle and the human world, Baloo the bear and Bagheera the jaguar are here to help him. Monkeys play a role. There’s nothing truly fresh about the story, try as Serkis might to put a different spin on it.
To Mowgli’s credit, the visuals can be stunning. The world of the jungle is lush and full of color, and the CGI is mostly seamless. Weirdly, the most jarring part of the CGI is the way the animals are portrayed. Serkis has chosen to not realistically convey the faces of the animals, instead giving them narrow, more humanoid faces, perhaps to more accurately convey motion capture. But injecting these humanoid features make their faces distracting and the environment unrealistic. It’s almost a relief when Mowgli travels to the man village, giving our eyes a break from slightly-off-looking CGI creatures.
It’s surprising to see Serkis, the king of motion capture, get the balance so wrong with his animal characters. But with a stellar cast, it’s hard to blame him. The all-British cast feels like Serkis called in favors from friends made in previous films like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings series. Cate Blanchett is the enigmatic snake, Kaa, and Benedict Cumberbatch continues his reign of big bad motion capture villains as the evil tiger, Shere Khan. Christian Bale plays a only-slightly-Batman-y Bagheera, while Serkis himself voices happy-go-lucky turned hardened Cockney-accented bear, Baloo. Matthew Rhys, Naomie Harris, Peter Mullan, Jack Reynor and Freida Pinto (in an almost silent role) round out the cast.
Sadly, Mowgli just can’t seem to find its audience, unless you’ve been jonesing for a dark and violent take on a familiar story. With a very similar adaptation successfully dominating box offices a couple of years ago, it seems destined to get lost in the digital media landscape. Speaking of, the film debuts on Netflix on December 7.