Coming less than three years after Disney’s megabucks remake of The Jungle Book, Andy Serkis’ lower-key version of Rudyard Kipling’s tales will inevitably be compared. It’s a brave effort, giving a darker take on the story of Mowgli, a survival tale with teeth bared and blood under its nails, but for all its fight it comes off inferior to Disney’s film in every respect.
For the most part, Serkis’ telling of Mowgli’s story is the one we know: a baby is lost in the jungle after his parents are killed by a tiger, Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch). He’s raised by a pack of wolves and a panther, Bagheera (Christian Bale), who is essentially his nanny. Mowgli (Rohan Chand) grows up an outsider in the jungle, mistrusted for being a human, the jungle’s greatest threat, but the only one who can protect the other animals from Shere Khan. Towards the end it takes the story in an unfamiliar direction as Mowgli meets a hunter (Matthew Rhys) who shows him man’s worst nature, but all the story beats are familiar.
The characterisation is cartoonish but the world they live in vicious.
The way Serkis has tried to differentiate his film is by giving his jungle a lawless, savage feel, where death is never more than a second away and even Mowgli’s friends are pitiless killers. The animal characters, particularly Baloo (Andy Serkis), have faces etched with scars. Mowgli is bitten, bruised, slashed and near-drowned. This isn’t a place where carnivores are ever likely to break into jaunty song.
That menace in the presentation, though, is at odds with a script, by first-time screenwriter Callie Kloves, that has the simplicity and broad strokes of a film aimed at children. It creates an odd tone where the characterisation is cartoonish but the world they live in vicious. A scene in which one of Mowgli’s cute pals is stuffed and mounted is likely to cause a lot of tears for any younger viewers who happen across it expecting fun in the jungle.
As a showcase for The Imaginarium, Serkis’ digital performance capture studio, success is mixed. From a distance the characters move fluidly and there’s beauty in the design, particularly on an ancient elephant who has lived so long he’s begun to resemble a moss-covered rock. Yet in the faces there’s something odd, the animals’ features arranged in a way that’s just a touch human, the eyes somehow in the wrong place. It’s off-putting. Further, Serkis has directed a stellar cast to over-do the voices. Cate Blanchett, as the snake Kaa, is hissing and wheezing like emphysema’s about to claim her.
Mowgli is a valiant effort to do something different, to make viewers feel the excitement and deep fear of living among wild animals. It has some bold, interesting ideas, but after one watch this jungle book is likely to be left on the shelf.