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At an Arclight Hollywood screening Wednesday night — the film’s unofficial North American premiere — Serkis gave special thanks to former distributor Warner Bros., the studio “we started this project with 72 years ago,” and Rohan Chand, his adolescent lead “who, again, started this process when he was 10 or 11 years old, and now has children” (in reality, he’s currently 14).
Theatrical audiences in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and London can catch the latest adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s most famous work in 3D courtesy of Netflix, which will begin streaming the film worldwide next Friday. Before Netflix acquired the global distribution rights this July, Warner Bros. had an Oct. 19, 2018, release on the books.
“The wait helped the process, in a way,” Chand told The Hollywood Reporter on the sand-colored carpet. “I got to age with Mowgli, and you really got to see Mowgli change — my voice, whatever.”
Serkis — the name most often associated with performance-capture acting — mastered its cutting-edge techniques in Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake, plus the Lord of the Rings, Planet of the Apes and Hobbit trilogies. When not menacing Middle-earth as Gollum in the latter films, Serkis worked as Jackson’s second-unit director. He had intended to make his directorial debut with Mowgli, instead achieving the milestone with last year’s Breathe, the biopic of late disabled rights advocate Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield; Claire Foy portrayed his wife).
In late 2013, Serkis was sent Mowgli, written by first-time screenwriter Callie Kloves (she is the daughter of the film’s eventual producer, Steve Kloves, who also penned seven of the eight Harry Potter films and produced both Fantastic Beasts installments).
“I loved the script,” Serkis raved to THR. “At that point, there was no other version of Jungle Book, for a start. So there was a sort of clear run; I thought, ‘This is incredible, this is about time the world has seen a version which is closer to Rudyard Kipling’s book, in terms of its tone, story, characters.’”
He assembled a cast that included Chand — a boy of Indian descent, who landed his first role (2011’s Jack and Jill) after he was discovered while playing baseball in New York City — as well as Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Matthew Rhys and Freida Pinto, among others.
Serkis claimed the part of Baloo, the wise elder bear, while he gave the part of Mowgli’s diminutive wolf of a best friend, Bhoot, to his youngest son, Louis (long his father’s performance-capture test subject). Shooting took place not on a California soundstage but in South Africa; Chand remembers stepping over snakes barefoot, and the time “some monkeys just came onto set [and] stole some props.”
Yet once production was underway, Serkis and his team learned that Disney was planning a live-action version of its 1967 cartoon classic The Jungle Book (Serkis is a member of the Disney-owned Marvel Universe, having reprised his role as the nefarious Dr. Klaue in February’s Black Panther). Completed first with another megawatt ensemble and released in spring 2016, that film claimed an Academy Award for visual effects, winning director Jon Favreau another majestic wilderness assignment (he will helm 2019’s The Lion King).
“What I’d love to have happened to this movie is that it would start at festivals, go to Cannes, maybe, or Venice, and have more of a kind of platform, gradually growing in release.” said Serkis, who is British, adding, “It has more of a European sensibility.”
Since Netflix has a presence in nearly 200 countries, Serkis argues that the newer studio can easily facilitate the worldwide impact he sought to make all along. Earlier this week, Mowgli became the first Hollywood film to host its world premiere in Nobel Prize-winner Kipling’s hometown, Mumbai (known as Bombay during his lifetime).
“It was fantastic,” Bale (who anchors Annapurna’s Christmas Day release, Vice) told THR. “We made it a family trip, and I was out there for a while beforehand, and then met the Indian actors who had dubbed [our voices] into Hindi, which made me wonder why am I there, in that case? ‘Cause you can’t really see that I’m in the film, you can’t hear me, but they said, ‘No, there will be choices: you can watch it in English, you can watch it in Hindi, and then there are other languages, too.’”
Netflix head of original films Scott Stuber was very pleased with the final result. “The passion and dedication that [Serkis] put into this movie is all over this screen, and to have been exposed to this movie and to his process and who he is as an artist has been a real treat for me personally,” he said in his opening remarks. “Tonight you’re going to see what a great genius this person is, and how lucky we are to have him in this industry, creating and telling the stories he tells.”
Mowgli: The Legend of the Jungle arrives on Netflix Dec. 7.
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