Mowgli - Legend of the Jungle Review: A not-so-dark, partially convincing retelling
With the 2016 Jon Favreau blockbuster adaptation of The Jungle Book still fresh in audience's minds, comparisons of Serkis' version with it, though unfair, are unavoidable
Nostalgia is a funny thing. You never can quite look back at what's happened with unadulterated fondness. The Jungle Book I knew, growing up in the Doordarshan era, was a fun-filled ride into Rudyard Kipling's world punctuated with lively music.
Then adulthood happened. And I realised that Disney has not just watered down The Grimm Brothers' fairy tales but also extended its saccharine family-friendly goodness to Kipling's The Jungle Book. Walt Disney first adapted the story in 1967, and it has taken 51 years for us to see a version which, to an extent, lines up with Kipling's vision.
Director: Andy Serkis
Cast: Rohan Chand, Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett
Andy Serkis' Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, is a motion-capture retelling of the story of the beloved feral child, who grows up among the wolves, hiding from Shere Khan, the tiger, who is out to kill him, just as he killed his man-parents.
Mowgli... stars a spirited Rohan Chand as the titular character, whose search for identity forms the crux of this Netflix release. One of the very few live actors in the film, Rohan brings a sense of angst-ridden vulnerability to his Mowgli. The film boasts a rich star cast including the likes of Christian Bale as the guardian black panther Bagheera, Serkis as Baloo, Cate Blanchett as an interesting new version of Kaa, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan, whose silkily violent voice perfectly accentuates his fury.
However, the motion capture technology does take time getting used to as your mind keeps seeing the actors rather than the characters. Christian Bale's chiselled jawline, for instance, gets overlaid onto the pristine black mane of Bagheera.
Though the story isn't new, screenwriter Callie Kloves inserts a lot of issues plaguing the world today. You have people dealing with an identity crisis in a new world, and how even the good-at-heart mistake individuality for weakness. You have the problems of poaching and how "the jungle is changing, and man is taking more of it as every season passes." A lot of subtext is at play, but the writing only scratches the surface and never becomes too expository.
A stand-out aspect of the film is its Indianness. Though the setting of Kipling's 1894 story has always been India across its adaptations, there was never a sense of indigenousness in its making. It always made me wonder how the animals living in Indian forests, never had an animal that spoke in an Indian slang. That's true here too, but the Indianness comes in the music, which is heavily filled with flutes and violins, with a marked Indian sound. Even the Indian villagers in the film (of whom Freida Pinto is the only recognisable face), are given decent character arcs instead of just being token brown characters.
There is a lot to root for: the raw violence in the fights between the animals, an interesting flashback to Bagheera, the scenes where Mowgli is initiated into the world of humans, and more. However, just like the writing, these moments also just skim the surface. You don't really care much about the plight of the man-cub, and this is not because you know the story already.
The intended lack of humour notwithstanding, even the conversations between major characters aren't memorable. The makers always advertised this film as a dark version of The Jungle Book, and yet it is not as dark as you'd expect.
With the 2016 Jon Favreau blockbuster adaptation of The Jungle Book still fresh in audience's minds, comparisons of Serkis' version with it, though unfair, are unavoidable. When Mowgli gets kidnapped by the monkey-people, you expect King Louie to engulf your screen. When Mowgli goes into the village, you expect Shere Khan to be immediately vanquished, instead of seeing Mowgli spend time in the village and making friends with people who actually look like him.
Intended for a big-screen release, Andy Serkis' Mowgli... had to settle for a Netflix release, and in a way, that might be for the best, considering there are scenes which are sure to scar children hoping to watch frolicking animals on screen. However, despite the clear breakaway from the traditional retelling of The Jungle Book, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle deserves a theatrical release. The screens on our handheld electronic devices don't do justice to the world of Serkis, where the expanse of the forests, the shimmering of the sun on flowing streams, the mirror-like scales on Kaa, and the glowing embers of fire are bewitching, to say the least. But, if this is the version we get to see, then so be it.