'Mowgli' in the Shadow of 'Lord of the Rings'

Peter Jackson collaborator Andy Serkis directs the Netflix film, and perhaps borrows too much from his friend Peter Jackson.
Courtesy of Netflix; Courtesy of Photofest
Rohan Chand in 'Mowgli'; Viggo Mortensen in 'Lord of the Rings'

[This story contains minor spoilers for Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle]

Andy Serkis' is finally unveiling Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, his Netflix Jungle Book adaptation that has been in the works for years and comes in the shadow of Jon Favreau's own 2016 hit. But there's another shadow this film also lives in: that of Serkis frequent collaborator Peter Jackson. 

If one so desires, there’s space for to improve on Rudyard Kipling’s All the Mowgli Stories, and The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book, and even In the Rukh, the first Mowgli story written but the last in his tale’s chronology; the texts are products of their time, culture and author, so awash in casually smug racism that it’s impossible to separate the “stuff” of the narrative from the “stuff” of Kipling’s ideology. You’re free to enjoy The Jungle Book, whether Wolfgang Reitherman’s 1967 animated movie or Jon Favreau’s 2016 live-action take; art isn’t immune to cultural growing pains as time passes, and the art of yesteryear rarely aligns with the values of today. But if filmmakers feel compelled to tinker with the text to excise its racist implications, more power to ‘em.

But in Serkis’ second feature directing gig (post-2017’s Breathe), Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, “tinkering” means “overlaying Kipling’s books with Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.” Credit where due: Serkis’ aesthetic replication comes as a surprise. But it’s also distracting to the film’s detriment, an example of style overtaking substance, or perhaps substance subsuming substance; there’s so much of the Rings films woven in Mowgli’s fabric that at times it scarcely feels like an interpretation of The Jungle Book at all, more like a Jackson acolyte's naked riff on his filmography but set to the tune of Kipling rather than Tolkien. Serkis has replaced the bear necessities with pomp, circumstance, sturm and quite a bit of drang.

Mowgli’s overwhelming emphasis on gravity and portent makes for a puzzling viewing experience right from the start. Isn’t it a bit on the nose to start the film with voiceover provided by Cate Blanchett, playing Kaa, the python, as a wise seer monitoring the fate of the jungle the same way Galadriel does Middle-earth in The Fellowship of the Rings’ opening chapter? She’s given a similar monologue by screenwriter Callie Kloves and intones much the same way, too, her voice steady, grave, low on the register, filled with a creeping dread for her home and what the arrival of man means for the land’s denizens. Even the way she hits that very word, “man,” calls to mind the ascension of Men in the annals of Middle-earth: Men are cause for scrutiny and existential hand-wringing in the Rings films, heirs to the world with an inborn weakness to the evil threatening it.

Much the same is true of Mowgli, whose protagonist, the title wolf-man-cub (Rohan Chand), has a foot in the jungle as well as the realm of man. Serkis wraps the movie around the question of which realm he’ll ultimately choose as his; will he stay true to his brethren in the jungle, the panther Bagheera (Christian Bale applying Bat Voice™ to a mocap role), the great bear Baloo (Serkis himself going full Estuary English), the wolf pack serving as his surrogate family, being Akela (Peter Mullan), Nisha (Naomie Harris), Brother Wolf (Jack Reynor) and Bhoot (Serkis' son Louis Ashbourne Serkis). His arc echoes the major Rings arcs of Frodo (Elijah Wood), and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), two characters searching for identity, or in Aragorn’s case denying it.

Mowgli’s identity issues are rooted in Kipling’s books, but they’re given new framing by Serkis’ approach to the material. Mowgli doesn’t feel much like Mowgli; he’s more of an amalgam of Frodo’s and Aragorn’s various parts. He’s in near-constant danger when out and about in the jungle; the other animals, Bagheera and Baloo most of all, watch over him, his dedicated bodyguards sworn to protect him from the bloodthirsty tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch). But he’s also a twist on the “chosen one” trope, similar to Aragorn, being the one character capable of brokering peace between the animals of the jungle and the men who live on the forest’s borders. (He’s even tasked with reforging broken blades, except the blade is a tusk that belongs to an elephant. Call it a mulligan.)

The sooner viewers spot the connections between Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle and The Lord of the Rings, the more those connections pollute the former. Even a set piece in the monkey kingdom, a dark, dank cave crawling with howling simian fiends, echoes the Khazad-dum sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring, where orcs swarm the heroes from the floor to the ceiling and flee only at the arrival of a larger foe (being everyone’s favorite fiery fiend, the balrog); the twist, such as it is, is that the larger foe in Mowgli turns out to be Kaa, who busts in and starts wrecking up the place to save Mowgli rather than kill him for reasons that even a later sequence don’t make particularly clear.

Whether this is “bad” is in the eye of the audience. It is, however, bizarre. Grant that artists, like grapes to wine or hops to beer, are often influenced by the environment they’re grown in; consider, for instance, for instance, James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta, which reads so strongly as a Wachowski picture that their old protege scarcely registers as its director. Serkis has worked with Jackson countless times throughout his career, on the Rings films as well as King Kong. It makes sense, to a point, that Mowgli would take a few cues from Jackson’s work, not simply couched in its use of mocap technology (the same tech that brought Gollum to life in The Two Towers), but couched in thematic and narrative concerns, too.

But Mowgli goes beyond artistic terroir and treads grounds of imitation. The family resemblance is so strong, it’s a shock that no one, at any point during production, caught on and thought to say something about it.