Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle review – a relentlessly bleak film that aims high but falls flat

Andy Serkis’s long-delayed ‘Jungle Book’ adaptation is laudably ambitious, but can’t decide who its audience is 

Alexandra Pollard
Thursday 06 December 2018 14:35
Mowgli - Trailer

Dir: Andy Serkis; Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Naomie Harris, Andy Serkis, Peter Mullan and Rohan Chand. Cert 12A, 104mins

What a strange creature Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is. And what strange creatures inhabit it.

The film’s journey has been as serpentine as its Cate Blanchett-voiced python, Kaa. After it was first mooted by Warner Bros in 2012, various directors rose and fell – Ron Howard, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Steve Kloves – before Andy Serkis came on board. As the undisputed motion capture king, Serkis seemed perfectly equipped. Surely he could steer to glory the latest adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, the tale of a human “man cub” brought up in the Indian jungle by a pack of wolves.

Then in 2016, just as the film was gearing towards release, along came Disney’s own remake – also a live-action/CGI combination. To avoid competing with the big-budget blockbuster, and to make time to smooth out kinks in the film’s visual effects, Warner pushed Mowgli’s release back several years.

Finally, though, Serkis’s second directorial outing – after 2017’s vastly different Breathe – has received a Netflix release. Its problems soldier on. It is an ambitious, deeply solemn film that wrestles with itself throughout – never quite reconciling its dark, adult inclinations with its children’s book origins.

Prowling towards uncanny valley terrain, the animals of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle are grizzled and grubby, all yellowing teeth and thinning fur. The characters have neither the cuddly, caricatured cuteness of the 1967 animation, nor the realistic majesty of the 2016 remake. Bengal tiger Shere Khan, lavishly voiced and motion-captured by Benedict Cumberbatch, is pinched and bedraggled, with strangely human eyes. Peter Mullan’s wolf leader Akela has facial scars and furrowed brows. Brown bear Baloo – played by Serkis himself – is, well, hideous. Truly hideous.

Baloo, voiced by Andy Serkis, in ‘Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle’ 

All of which, combined with the frustratingly dark jungle vistas, makes for large swathes of aesthetically unappealing viewing. There are a few rays of light – namely when Rohan Chand’s Mowgli interacts with the sleek, imposing Bagheera. The black panther’s human counterpart, Christian Bale – who no doubt spent 16 months hunting game in the Indian jungle to prepare for the role – imbues him with a kindly authority, and Chand is nimble and scrappy and shows real dramatic chops.

Serkis hammers home the film’s themes of identity and belonging. His central character is, in the hissed words of Kaa, “not quite a wolf, not quite a man… or neither, or both”. Among the animals he grew up with, he is shunned and blamed for the sins of his species. Among his fellow humans he is treated like an animal and caged.

But if Mowgli’s plight makes for upsetting viewing, baby wolf Bhoot’s is straight-up traumatising. Bhoot, voiced by Serkis’s son Louis Ashbourne Serkis, is the runt of the litter. Afflicted with some sort of albinism, he is relentlessly bullied by his peers.

Still, he remains optimistic, reeling off words of affirmation he’s been fed by his mother. They’re both just special he tells best – and only – friend Mowgli. Eventually, in a fit of misdirected rage, Mowgli lets loose. “It’s just something your mother tells you to feel good about yourself,” he yells, “because you came out wrong”. Things don’t improve for Bhoot from there.

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Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is relentlessly, discordantly bleak. So bleak you almost admire Serkis’s audacity. But too often the film stumbles around in its own darkness and falls flat. It is, to paraphrase Kaa, not quite a kid’s film, not quite an adult’s one. Or neither. Or both.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is out on Netflix on 7 December

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