“Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” Movie Review

This is the second movie I’ve seen in less than 10 years where Benedict Cumberbatch plays a character named Khan that a protagonist shouts in anger. That is, thankfully, not the only distinguishing feature for this film. This fantasy adventure drama was originally scheduled to be released in theaters on October 19th, 2018. However, in an unexpected turn of events, the distributors were swapped and it instead received a select theatrical run for one week beginning on November 29th. It then reached a wider audience when it ultimately landed on the streaming service Netflix on December 7th of this year. The film is said to be a more faithful, straightforward adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s writings, the 9th one overall if I’m not mistaken. Warner Bros. began developing the project as early as 2012 under the title Jungle Book: Origins, intended to be the directorial debut of Andy Serkis. While most of the production occurred back in 2015, after Disney announced and ultimately released their film version first to massive success, the release date kept getting pushed back, partially to also iron out the complex visual effects. Then, the studio decided to offset the movie altogether and sold distribution rights to Netflix, who set it up for an early holiday release. It’s also notable for being the first mainstream Hollywood film to premiere in India, with a special event held in Mumbai. As with all of Kipling’s stories, we follow Mowgli, this time played by Rohan Chand, a young boy raised in the Indian jungle by a pack of wolves. As he comes of age, he is challenged by a ruthless Bengal tiger named Shere Khan, performed by Benedict Cumberbatch, who has a special hatred for mankind. Feeling isolated and unwelcome, the “man-cub” has to come to terms with who he is and face off against the tiger, all while a nearby human village seeks to hunt them all for game. I’ve been interested to see what Andy Serkis could with this story for a few years now, being an enormous fan of his motion-capture work in the Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes reboot trilogies, respectively. While I really liked Disney’s live-action revamp from 2016, it still retains the filter of childhood friendliness. Walt Disney famously told his animators to toss out Rudyard Kipling’s stories in the original animation, ultimately the last one before the mogul’s death. So I was curious to see what a more faithful adaptation would look like, even as it swapped studios at virtually the last minute. Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is definitely an interesting take on the source material, but there’s still a lot left to be desired. Let’s be clear here: This film does follow a lot of the same beats we’re familiar with at this point. What immediately makes Mowgli different from most of the other adaptations is how it’s unafraid to explore the darker, more violent aspects of the jungle. Many of the characters, including the man-cub himself, have visible scars on the bodies, sustained either from other animals or the human hunters that reside close. My issue is that I feel it didn’t go all-in for these aspects, often times struggling to figure out whose audience it is. It’s almost always at its best when dealing with the darker themes of Kipling’s stories and less so when it attempts to give out doses of family-friendly humor. Young newcomer Rohan Chand plays the titular lead role, and he’s apparently very well-suited for it. Incredibly strong-willed but never faltering in his curiosity, it’s quite fascinating to watch as he’s torn between two worlds and never really belongs anywhere. This time around, he’s not the only live-action player; Freida Pinto and Matthew Rhys play a caring village mother and a white colonial hunter, respectively. All of the iconic animals are brought to life with motion capture performance. Christian Bale is stern but soft as the panther Bagheera, Benedict Cumberbatch is a little too showy as the feared tiger Shere Khan, Cate Blanchett is both mysterious and seductive as the giant snake Kaa, and Serkis himself is joyful but off-edge as the big bear Baloo. Meanwhile, on the technical side of things, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle frequently swings from being fairly impressive to being in need of more post-production work. The cinematography by Michael Seresin employs a surprising amount of practical locations; it’s not all just in a big studio lot. He uses a lot of sweeping shots to capture the vastness of the jungle as well as dramatic push-ins or tracking shots to emphasize tension when needed. It also highlights or heightens certain colors when it’s set in the village, such as green for the surrounding jungle or red for blood or powder. The editing department is a triple duty taken on by Mark Sanger, Alex Marquez, Jeremiah O’Driscoll. While not necessarily overdone, it does feel a little rushed in certain areas or scenes. And of course, there are those motion-capture effects, the primary reason for its numerous delays. On occasion, they looked a tad cartoonish, and in others, they looked uncanny. Serkis’ passion for the project rings truest in this department, as he and his production company did their best to make the animals look as realistic as possible. The musical score is composed and conducted by Nitin Sawhney. It’s a pretty interesting and diverse soundtrack, covering a lot of unexpected ground. The vast majority of tracks are highly orchestral, incorporating swaying strings and soft percussion instrumentation to create the scope. But there are also unique elements such as wooden flutes, trippy saxophones, and discordant chimes in the background. Sawhney also wrote an original song called “Changes,” featuring the vocals of singer Kara Marni. It uses much of the same instrumentation as the rest of the soundtrack, albeit more heavily on percussion. It feels like an appropriate coda for the film, being played during the end credits, and reflects the jungle’s changing nature thanks to the actions of the titular boy. With possibly more potential than the Disney version from 2016, and some memorable imagery throughout, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a compelling visual journey that fails to deliver on its darker promises. Andy Serkis definitely shows he has a capable hand behind the camera, and I’m interested to see what else he can come up with in later years. This was a decent start for him, although it could have been so much more.

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