As Shere Khan shimmies through the jungle, you can feel his aura in every inch of the frame. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, the infamous tiger proved to be a physically intimidating creature once more. With an added limp, this depiction of the character is violent, dark, and a bloodthirsty creature. The journey into darkness and death in the jungles makes Mowgli stand out from the cuddly and fun Disney versions. However, the Andy Serkis directed film runs into issues from the word go. With levels of violence and death that will certainly leave some feeling cold, the “this is not your grandma’s Jungle Book” ultimately grinds the narrative to a halt.
The story of the Mowgli slightly mixes up the story. After Shere Khan murders a man and woman in the jungle, Bagheera (Christian Bale) rescues a child and leaves him with the wolves. The pack, (Naomie Harris, Peter Mullen, Jack Reynor, and Eddie Marson), names the boy Mowgli (Rohan Chand). However, Shere Khan (Cumberbatch) and his hyena sidekick Tabaqui (Tom Hollander), challenge for the child. When Bagheera and a reluctant Baloo (Serkis) agree to sponsor the child, the pack defends Mowgli from the tiger. Years later, Khan’s return to the jungle brings a hunter (Matthew Rhys). With many new dangers, Mowgli must navigate his future to ensure his survival.
The way in which Serkis approaches Mowgli, you can tell he clearly had a vision. There are beats that really work, especially in the fleshing out of Bagheera. The brotherly and fatherly relationship comes through in a big way. We are introduced to death through this relationship and paves the way for different paths to diverge. It’s a shaping relationship, and Mowgli’s development feels earned. The emotion of this film flows from this relationship, and Rohan Chand shines against the CGI characters that surround him. Even Mowgli‘s choice to almost exclusively cast British actors and have them speak in their accents is a choice. It may create some unintentionally comical moments, particularly by paving the path for good old fashion imperialism, but it is at least a choice. However, the choices quickly dry up.
Serkis pushes Baloo to the background. However, it also felt like Serkis shelved Harris’ Nisha because of Lupita Nyong’o’s brilliant turn last time out. You can feel Mowgli suffering from the fact that it wants to stay away from Disney’s adaptation in every way, rather than forging its own path. Mowgli trips over its own feet and rushes many moments due to this very issue. When Mowgli finally ends up in the human village, we’re more than halfway through the film. Little development can take place at that time.
The other big issue for Serkis is that he can’t seem to let his cast shine. Outside of Bale, Mullen, and Cumberbatch, the vast animal cast does not shine. Cate Blanchette takes on the role of Kaa, and there’s almost no reason for her to be in the film. She almost works as the Greek chorus to the film, narrating the opening and close to the film, as well as providing a deus ex machina toward the middle of the film. Reynor gets almost nothing to do outside of a single scene, and both Hollander and Harris are criminally underused. Why have the ensemble, if you’re not going to use it?
Ultimately, the biggest issues come from the narrative. Serkis wants to bring death into this universe. It’s an interesting choice early, but when it becomes the obsessive character trait for each of the three worldviews we get exposed to, you question why the movie puts all its chips on its choice.
Cumberbatch’s vision as Shere Khan is the most exciting and creates a variation on the “Heart of Darkness” tropes about charismatic murderers in the jungle. We see blood run down his face, and he does real damage to Mowgli. But when juxtaposed with Rhys’ hunter, we’re unsure who to root for. Serkis falters at times, and lets characters die for seemingly no reason. For death to be so important to our character development, you question why Mowgli embraces nihilistic tendencies as characters bite it.
What compounds the narrative issues is the literally dark visuals we get on screen. For every bright and colorfully wonderous shot, we get a half dozen where you can barely see the characters. For a film that spent so much money on CGI, having all of its characters in the shadows feels like a mistake. That leads you to the second problem though: the CGI is not very good. Mowgli feels outdated by Disney’s 2016 film, and you wonder why Serkis would approach the film without knowing this element would have improved on the first. It is extremely frustrating how often the images look blurry or overly computer generated.
When you sit down to watch Mowgli, your previous feelings toward the property should be tossed to the side. Simply ask, are you in the mood for a slow, dark, and murderous film? Some may find pleasure in Serkis’ meditation on the world of the jungle. Yet, there are no many new paths taken by the story. In the process, you’ll question what story Serkis saw in Mowgli, other than making it darker. Sadly, the questions he tries to ask don’t really spark much reason to revisit the story of a young boy in the jungle.
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