Andy Serkis’s Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle sets itself up as at a firm distance from the Disney versions that have been released over the past decades. Serkis’s film, which is being streamed on Netflix, uses the same source – Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book stories – but extends the scope of the narrative. The film crams into the course of 105 minutes the story of the feral child who is abandoned in the woods after the tiger Shere Khan gobbles up his parents. Rescued by the black panther Bagheera and deposited with a wolf pack, Mowgli grows up as one of the jungle’s many creatures, but must confront his human identity as he gets older.
The most recent version of Kipling’s late eighteenth-century tales was Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book in 2016. A visual effects marvel, featuring a lone human actor as Mowgli (Neel Sethi) and hordes of computer-generated animals, birds and insects, Favreau’s film was considerably darker than Disney’s original animated version, even as it took care to explore the wonders of the jungle and never dialled down Sethi’s appeal.
Andy Serkis puts the jungle back into the narrative, even as he leaves out a few elements. The production, starring Rohan Chand as Mowgli, is discerningly on a tighter budget, and the depiction of the Indian forest far less imaginative than in the Disney film. The sense of enchantment and adventure of the 2016 production is missing, with no strong ideas to replace it except that the jungle is groaning with menace and death. (The monkey’s lair, for instance, is depicted as a shadowy house of horrors.)
Serkis’s vision kicks in only after Mowgli has been forced to return to the village that borders the jungle. Mowgli meets humans for the first time, including a kindly woman (Freida Pinto) who sings him a lullaby and a cruel hunter (Matthew Rhys) who wants Shere Khan’s scalp. The film’s themes of divided identity and loyalty and the dangers posed by humans to the forest finally come into view in the climax.
Callie Kloves’s screenplay updates the material to present-day concerns about shrinking forests (“The jungle is changing, and man is taking more of it,” a character observes). But the film is unable to meaningfully re-imagine Shere Khan as anything but a villain, or present a persuasive argument that animals must team up with humans to eject the tiger from their midst.
Indian viewers who have been following the killing of the man-eating tigress Avni will find no new ideas in the depiction of Shere Khan as a cow-eating terror who must be remove from view. Mowgli’s encounter with stuffed animals and trophies collected by the hunter crystallises the human-versus-animal theme. Shere Khan’s eventual fate only adds to the muddle.
The movie has a stellar cast, which has provided the voices as well as the performance capture that makes the animals look real but also life-like in an often unnerving way. Rohan Chand is an older and less camera-friendly Mowgli, who alternates between crawling on all fours and running on his feet when he needs to. The cast is mostly solid, including Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan and Christian Bale as Bagheera, although Cate Blanchett’s hoarse and strained voice for the rock python Kaa seems to be on loan from a parody horror film. If this was an attempt to provide levity to an unremittingly grim story, it doesn’t quite work.