Andy Serkis’ take on the much-filmed classic Kipling tales about a pint-sized Tarzan raised by wolves and caught between animal and human societies has itself had a troubled time finding a place in the cinematic world. Shot in 2015, “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” was scheduled to be released the following year through Warner Brothers, but was shelved to avoid competing in the marketplace with Jon Favreau’s Disney smash “The Jungle Book,” and was eventually sold off to Netflix, which is giving it a token theatrical release prior to its premiere on the streaming service. It’s as much trapped between traditional distribution and modern technology as the title character is between his two backgrounds as man and beast.
You can understand why Warners decided to rid itself of the picture. It was not simply a matter of the competition from Favreau’s hit, but the character of Serkis’ much darker vision, which situates “Mowgli” in a distinctly uncomfortable position in terms of its likely audience. The Disney films—as well as most others based on the stories—are family-friendly stuff, not only suitable for but targeted to children. “Mowgli” isn’t. There are sequences here that would probably terrify very young viewers with their violence and themes of child endangerment, and parents should be aware of that.
And yet the film isn’t quite adult-oriented, either. It remains a coming-of-age story with talking animals, not unlike “The Lion King” in many respects, and its attempt to make points about colonialism and man’s brutality toward other species never gets beyond the rudimentary level. At a time when another 2016 Warner project to revive a classic jungle story in a more serious (some would say pompous) vein—“The Legend of Tarzan”—proved pretty much a bust, one can understand the studio’s decision to divest itself of what must have seemed a very risky venture. Distribution and marketing costs, after all, are extremely high.
One should, however, be grateful to Netflix for giving us the chance finally to see what is certainly an ambitious, if flawed, entry in the “Jungle Book” sweepstakes. Serkis has lavished his expertise in stop-motion work on it, and though the results are sometimes less than optimum, they include some novel and intriguing ideas, like the decision to construct the animal faces to reflect those of the actors voicing them (though the voice work itself, unhappily, is mostly bland). The mixture of the animated images with the natural surroundings, dense with rock outcroppings and dense foliage (the cinematographer is Michael Seresin), is also impressive (the editors are Mark Sanger, Alex Marqurz and Jeremiah O’Driscoll).
As to the plot, here narrated by the python Kaa (voiced by Catherine Blanchett), it combines familiar elements with some new twists. Mowgli’s parents are killed by the tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the boy is saved by the panther Bagheera (Christian Bale) and adopted by the wolf Nisha (Naomie Harris), who adds him to her brood with the assent of the pack’s leader Akela (Peter Mullan).
Mowgli, played with vigor if not much finesse by Rohan Chand, grows into a boy who wants to become an accepted part of the pack, and is trained for the competition that brings acceptance or rejection by the bear Baloo (Serkis). But his brothers consider him a freak, apart from the albino Bhoot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), who is also an outcast, and Mowgli is simply too slow to succeed. Even worse, Shere Khan returns with the aim of killing him; the hyena Vihaan (Eddie Marsan) becomes his lieutenant.
In trying to evade the tiger, Mowgli has some frightening encounters, one with Kaa, and a second with a tribe of monkeys that captures him. Both, but especially the latter, will probably be too scary for small fry, and it’s arguable that they go too far.
Concerned for the man-cub’s survival, Bagheera suggests—and then more directly forces—Mowgli’s descent to the human village, where he encounters a society that, terrified of his animalistic behavior, locks him up. There a hunter (Matthew Rhys) and a kindly woman (Freida Pinto) help him to learn human ways and join in the village work; but things quickly change as Bhoot arrives to tell Mowgli breathlessly about how the wolf pack has collapsed and Shere Khan has taken over. Mowgli also learns that the hunter is a killer, enamored of his trophies of animals he’s shot, and that he is responsible for the maiming of an elephant whose tusk he broke off. All the story strands are brought together in a ferocious finale in which death plays a major part; it too might be too much for younger viewers.
It’s easy to admire the visual artistry of “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle,” even though the motion-capture work isn’t as supple as that, for instance, in the “Planet of the Apes” movies. Its refusal to mimic the Disneyfied version of Kipling’s tales and adopt a grimmer tone more in line with Kipling’s can also be respected. In the end, however, it’s a film that never quite finds its footing, ending up as an intriguing misfire.