'Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle': Film Review

Bungle in the jungle.

This darker, sparer take on the Kipling classic fails to deliver the bare necessities.

Reaching civilization more than two-and-a-half years after the release of Jon Favreau’s blockbuster, The Jungle Book, Andy Serkis' decidedly non-Disney Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle may have intended to offer a darker, grittier take on the classic Kipling stories, but the end result proves to be more of a murky muddle. 

Episodic and distancing, the production, which had been slated as a Warner Bros. release until the studio sold worldwide distribution rights to Netflix in July, combines visuals that are alternately lush and nightmarish, performance-capture that falls unpersuasively short of state-of-the-art and a prestige cast (including Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Benedict Cumberbatch) that curiously fails to engage. 

Considering the number of viscerally intense sequences that are certain to scare the crap out of the kiddies, it’s understandable why the studio ultimately opted to cut this sizable marketing challenge loose, but it remains to be seen what Netflix will be able to make of it. The film will play in limited theatrical engagements in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and London this weekend ahead of its Dec. 7 Netflix global debut.

Narrated by Cate Blanchett’s sinister, prodigious python, Kaa, the film’s intro finds wild child Mowgli (Rohan Chand) in full identity crisis, with the man-cub awkwardly straddling the opposing worlds of the animal kingdom and humankind. Schooled in the laws of the jungle by a not-so-cuddly Baloo the bear (performance-capture king Serkis, sporting a heavily Cockney accent) and the cunning panther, Bagheera (Christian Bale), Mowgli finds himself struggling to keep pace with his wolf “brothers” in an endurance contest called "The Running."

But the return of the savage Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), intent on finishing what he started with the killing of Mowgli’s parents, puts the boy’s true survival skills to the test, leading to a decisive showdown.

Alas, just like Mowgli, who, as Kaa accurately observes, was “both man and wolf, and neither,” the film is constantly conflicted with its own considerable identity issues. Although the Serkis version would obviously like to be taken on its own terms, it’s virtually impossible to not invite comparisons to the Favreau film, both in terms of tone and technology. The non-singing, non-dancing approach taken by Serkis and the script by Callie Kloves (whose father, Steven, had originally been in talks to direct, as had Alejandro G. Inarritu and Ron Howard) theoretically allow the storytelling to get closer to its Kipling roots. But while an extended live-action sequence that returns Mowgli to the village, where he's briefly taken under the wing of a hunter (Matthew Rhys) and his nurturing wife (Freida Pinto), provides some useful balance to the jungle scenes, the interlude never quite feels organic to the rest of the production. 

Even more problematic is the lack of a unifying tone, with two instances in particular — one in which Mowgli is brutally attacked by his ape abductors and another in which he makes a shocking discovery in the hunter’s trophy room — pitched to such violently horrific effect it could have just as well been Sam Peckinpah’s Jungle Book

Meanwhile, back in the wilds, unlike the lithe, remarkably fluid movements of the performance-captured, four-legged characters that graced the Favreau version, there’s an odd jerkiness to the computer-generated animals here, particularly in their interaction with Mowgli, that ironically bring to mind some of those vintage Disneyland animatronics. 

And although young Chand admirably stands on his own two feet despite getting bashed around an awful lot, the rest of the cast, including Naomie Harris as motherly wolf Nisha, face an uphill battle when it comes to compensating for the script’s undernourished character development. 

There’s certainly an overriding surreal beauty in cinematographer Michael Seresin’s verdant visuals, but despite the efforts of three editors (Mark Sanger, Alex Marquez and Jeremiah O’Driscoll) to cobble the production into a cohesive whole, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle isn’t one for the books.

Production company: Imaginarium
Distributors: Netflix/Warner Bros.
Cast: Rohan Chand, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Naomie Harris, Andy Serkis, Peter Mullan, Jack Reynor, Eddie Marsan, Tom Hollander, Matthew Rhys, Freida Pinto
Director: Andy Serkis
Screenwriter: Callie Kloves
Producers: Steve Kloves, Jonathan Cavendish, David Barron
Executive producer: Nikki Penny
Director of photography: Michael Seresin
Production designer: Gary Freeman
Costume designer: Alexandra Byrne
Editors: Mark Sanger, Alex Marquez, Jeremiah O’Driscoll
Music: Nitin Sawhney
Casting director: Lucy Bevan 

Rated PG-13, 104 minutes