Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, 2018.
Directed by Andy Serkis.
Starring Rohan Chand, Andy Serkis, Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto, Naomie Harris, Peter Mullan, Eddie Marsan, Matthew Rhys, Jack Reynor, Tom Hollander, and Louis Ashbourne Serkis.
A human child raised by wolves must face off against a menacing tiger named Shere Khan, as well as his own origins.
In an era where 90% of variations on classic stories announce themselves as the untold story surrounding its subject, here is a movie that would actually earn that claim if it began with such a statement. Far and away from the various family-friendly adaptations of the Rudyard Kipling tale, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is dark boasting graphic showcases of violence that are questionable; I suppose they fit in with the already established gritty tone, but they are barely necessary, not a bare necessity. Regardless, the reason famed motion capture star turned director Andy Serkis’ retelling of the classic Jungle Book story (the one the general public is most familiar with) is mostly a dud has nothing to do with multiple quick glimpses of animal innards and going after an older demographic, but rather the seriously rough around the edges computer imagery that is done no favors by a grab bag of A-list actors shouting their way through less than stellar dialogue.
By now, everyone knows the setup, but for those not in the know the story goes that striped tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch sneering his way through the voiceover role from the studio booth, emphasizing the hell out of every malicious line as if he’s the one voicing the all-seeing prophetic giant python Kaa who is actually played by Cate Blanchett here, also going through the motions of overacting) is an angry beast seeking control of the jungle. During one of his moments of bloodlust brought on by aggressively protecting the jungle from hunters and humans versed in what they believe to be black magic, fire, he murders the parents of an infant child that the rest of the pack of animals would go on to take in and raise as one of their own, giving him the eponymous name of Mowgli (relative newcomer Rohan Chand, putting in better work than anyone could have ever asked for such iffy execution).
Panther Bagheera (Christian Bale, who seems to alter his voice to be in completely different movies with each subsequent scene, as if even he doesn’t quite know what this movie is actually supposed to be) and black bear Baloo (voiced by Andy Serkis himself with a strange combination of vocal strict behavior and occasional warmth, no singing at all mind you) are told that the boy, quickly becoming a man, can remain a part of the jungle if he passes in the Running, which is basically a test of not being captured by various animals alongside the aforementioned tutors.
As you can probably see, the story here is already drifting away from the commonly told version, although even the identifiable beats never really work because of the atrocious CGI that simply looks unfinished and makes certain characters look ghastly. And I don’t mean that in a frightening way because they are violent predators, more so that they bluntly look hideous. Nevertheless, Mowgli befriends runt of the wolves Bhoot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), getting along quite well and connecting over the fact that neither of them is living up to the lofty expectations of being a wolf. Rather than be deemed inferior, they are told that they are special. As Mowgli struggles to find his own place of belonging, the friendship naturally has its ups and downs, and it’s in those moments where the story actually finds some emotion. There is no happy Disney ending here; Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle goes to some disturbing places but considering the take on the source material, it feels appropriate. It’s a shame the rest of the film isn’t as emotionally affecting.
Unlike the live-action/CGI Disney hybrid, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle contains a village set shot entirely on location in South Africa, rounded out with seemingly actual Hindi actors adding some authenticity to the character interactions. And maybe it’s because the dark script doesn’t necessarily work with something as inherently silly as talking animals, but the live-action portion where Mowgli comes to understand himself more by befriending a local tribe and talking to an enlisted hunter tasked with also dealing with Khan is both steeped in fascinating culture and feels somewhat lived in. Furthermore, this 20-minute segment also makes the climax (which once again involves the jungle animals) come across far more believable and captivating than anything before, as if the movie needed to be grounded in reality before entering a fantastical fable realm. Whatever the case may be, the final act of the film is admittedly strong, but nowhere near salvages the prior unintentionally hilarious and bland mediocrity. Not to mention, the CGI is still ugly as sin throughout the whole movie even when it is fun.
Being wholly transparent in an age where some critics are taking their vitriol towards a film and its crew too far, it does pain me to have to write these negative thoughts knowing that Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle was one of Andy Serkis’ passion projects. To be fair, the actual motion capture (of which all of the actors participated in to my knowledge) is fine and the idea itself is tantalizing, but he’s failed by not having pockets as deep as Disney to create the photorealistic imagery that is truly needed to make this work and another rewrite of the script. However, as far as misfires go, it’s still worth checking out, especially considering it launches on Netflix where it will hopefully find an audience amid its faults.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com