Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is receiving some brutal reviews, which isn't good for Netflix's big release. Mowgli was originally slated to release around the same time as Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book in 2016, but it received multiple delays before ultimately landing an October 2018 release date. Then, things took a turn when Warner Bros. unloaded Mowgli to Netflix. And now Netflix is releasing Mowgli on December 7 after first debuting it in select theaters around the United States.
Despite production delays, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, which is directed by motion capture mastermind Andy Serkis, sounded promising, since it was described as a more faithful adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's novel, The Jungle Book, which Disney's animated and live-action movies have taken inspiration from but tweaked for younger audiences. Starring Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander, and more, Mowgli was supposed to be WB's blockbuster answer to Disney's Jungle Book - but that may not be the case, even at Netflix.
The reviews for Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle are in, and it seems that while Serkis might have had a good idea on-hand, the execution of is poor and uneven. Critics have praised the performance of the young Rohan Chand as Mowgli, but the CGI and mo-cap performances have resulted in clunky, unfinished animal sequences which are difficult to watch. Added to that, Callie Kloves' Mowgli screenplay has also come in for criticism. And all of that is evidenced in Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle's most brutal reviews.
Once Matthew Rhys stomps into frame as a guarded big-game hunter, Mowgli abandons all sense of wonder and opts for a dark weirdness that will likely turn off audience members of all ages, while scarring a few of them along the way (a scene involving the jungle’s monkey population is revolting, and a later revelation involving one of Mowgli’s cub friends is one of the more horrifying things put to screen this year). The plot points that push Mowgli into his biggest revelations are hammy and obvious, punctuated by big shocks that are unearned and jarring simply for the sake of turning the narrative.
Mowgli is meant to live in two worlds, a “man-cub” fighting to be himself amongst creatures not used to such dichotomies, but Mowgli can never find the happy medium between any of its warring factions. Too dark for kids, too tame for adults. Stunning effects, occasionally wretched motion-capture. The technology may be there, but that doesn’t mean it’s been utilized to its full, feeling powers. It’s a coming-of-age story unable to push forward in all the ways that really matter.
Perhaps the weakest link in the film’s food chain is first-timer Callie Kloves’ anemic script, overstuffed by fillers of little substance. The story does not move as swiftly as the wolves do. The script’s solution to standing apart from the classic story is to add new characters and subplots; unfortunately, too much of a good thing can also tire a viewer out or bore them.
As an actor, Serkis may be the industry’ mo-cap master, but storytelling through performance is a different skill than writing or directing. The forced additions of characters like Bhoot needlessly bloat the movie’s mismatched visual style and misfit character looks. Since it can take years to put one of these CGI-filled movies together, it was perhaps poor timing that Mowgli followed Jon Favreau’s 2016 live-action reimagining of Disney’s 1967 animated movie. While Serkis and his team tried to separate his retelling from the others, the experiments and extras did not always work out.
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 characterization 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.
Alas, just like Mowgli, who, as Kaa accurately observes, was “both man and wolf, and neither,” the film is constantly conflicted with its own considerable identity issues. Although the Serkis version would obviously like to be taken on its own terms, it’s virtually impossible to not invite comparisons to the Favreau film, both in terms of tone and technology.
Even more problematic is the lack of a unifying tone, with two instances in particular — one in which Mowgli is brutally attacked by his ape abductors and another in which he makes a shocking discovery in the hunter’s trophy room — pitched to such violently horrific effect it could have just as well been Sam Peckinpah’s Jungle Book.
Meanwhile, back in the wilds, unlike the lithe, remarkably fluid movements of the performance-captured, four-legged characters that graced the Favreau version, there’s an odd jerkiness to the computer-generated animals here, particularly in their interaction with Mowgli, that ironically bring to mind some of those vintage Disneyland animatronics.
Unfortunately, as gifted as Chand is at reacting to imaginary animals, he (perhaps thankfully) yet lacks the life experience or acting capacity to make Mowgli’s identity crisis as nuanced or convincing as it needs to be. Perhaps some of the issue here is with Serkis and screenwriter Callie Kloves, who created a provocative existential dilemma for a character who might not yet be able to fully grasp all these issues.
But even if great stories are always worth telling, sometimes new versions aren’t necessary, especially when it’s unclear what their unique elements are. Ultimately, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is well crafted and thematically rich, but all of its examinations of nature, nurture, and finding one’s place in a complicated world ultimately underscore truths less relevant to the jungle Kipling’s character calls home than to Hollywood itself.
While Kipling created The Jungle Book, as well as told Mowgli's story from the beginning, it's really become Disney's story to tell over the years, at least with general audiences. And that Disney version of The Jungle Book, which filled to the brim with memorable songs such as "The Bare Necessities," is synonymous with Mowgli's story, and has been for decades. That doesn't mean Kipling's original story should be disregarded. However, it seems that all adaptations of The Jungle Book are being compared more to Disney's version than Kipling's story.
The comparisons are inevitable here, and Serkis' Mowgli just doesn't match up. The script is too simplistic for the dark, adult, and sometimes distressing themes of the movie Serkis has made, and that imbalance is painfully obvious. So, too, is the massive difference in the CGI/motion capture work, which seems far more detailed for some animals, and some scenes, than others. While Serkis may have made a noble effort with good intentions with Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, it seems that audiences will always prefer an all-singing, all-dancing bear and an ape who longs to be a human.