By Nick Maylor

It has long been my contention that Andy Serkis is one of the greatest living actors. His performances as Caesar in the rebooted The Planet of the Apes series (2011-2017) is every bit as good as Daniel Day-Lewis’ role in Lincoln (2012) and should have earned Serkis at least two Oscar nominations. It’s no surprise that Serkis has skill as a director, at the very least being able to get quality performances from the actors working under him. 

After serving as the second unit director for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy  (2012-2013)  Serkis made his directorial debut with Breathe, a compelling drama featuring great performances from Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy.

Production started on his Jungle Book adaptation with Warner Brothers years ago at the same time Jon Favreau was working on Disney’s own live-action remake The Jungle Book (2016). The Disney film was remake of their own 1967 film of the same name, whereas Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018) is based directly on the source material All the Mowgli Stories (1933)  by Rudyard Kipling. 

Serkis (who also plays Baloo the bear) directs an all-star cast, all of whom performed the roles via performance capture at Serkis’ studio the Imaginarium.

Based on Rudyard Kipling’s book, Serkis’ film naturally shares many similarities with Disney’s film as well as some stark contrasts. Unlike in Disney’s film where Baloo is a loner, in Mowgli, the character is very much a part of the “pack” with Bagheera (Christian Bale) the panther and the wolves. Baloo is responsible for training the pups to be ready for the night’s hunt, a right of passage of all wolves including the man-cub raised by wolves Mowgli (Rohan Chand). 

Interestingly both Favreau’s film and this one have (the originally male character) Kaa voiced by a woman, in this case, Cate Blanchett. Kaa bookends the film with voice-over narration which evokes the prologue of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) which features both Serkis and Blanchett. 

Ironically, the creature design for Serkis’ Mowgli is more “cartoonish” than its Disney counterpart. Through the use of performance-capture, it seems that the animal characters are slightly more stylized than they were in Favreau’s film. This could merely be an artistic choice by Serkis or it might have something to do with translating the actors’ performances through the CGI. The characters (strangely) resemble their actors as one can almost see Benedict Cumberbatch’s evil sneer on the face of Shere Khan, the film’s main villain.

The other antagonists are the human hunters imposing on the jungle through sport and inhabitation. Several human characters appear in Mowgli besides its title character.

Rohan Chand gives a solid performance as Mowgli, a child of two worlds who is trying to find his place in the jungle. The best performance of the MoCap actors belongs to Christian Bale, who portrays Bagheera the black panther, the one who found Mowgli and has looked after his “little brother” ever since. Serkis’ Baloo is extremely facially emotive and has an asymmetrical mouth with a hanging lip (reminiscent of Serkis’ gorilla from King Kong (2005)), as if this bear has seen his fair share of hardships. The slight tweaks to the animals faces to make them appear more human can be distracting the but the compelling story is enough to get past it. 

The film was originally intended for a theatrical release before being purchased by Netflix and the grand and majestic imagery is fitting. Try to watch it on the biggest screen you can. While perhaps not as satisfying as the Disney version, it offers enough of its own ideas to merit a viewing. It also contains solid performances by all the actors.

While Mowgli does get kidnapped by the “monkey people”, the character of King Louis (portrayed by Christopher Walken in the Disney film) does not appear here as he was created by Disney for the 1956 animated film. 

Parents should be cautioned that while this film is similar to the Disney Jungle Book, it has a noticeably darker and more adult tone (akin to the source material). Some frightening images and sequences may not be suitable for younger children. 

Serkis doesn’t knock it out of the park with Mowgli, although it serves as a good example of the possibilities of his signature MoCap technology and provides solid entertainment. 

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