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Josh Reviews Andy Serkis’ Mowgli

I’ve been following the long path of Andy Serkis’ Mowgli to the screen for years, and I am delighted to have finally seen it via its home on Netflix.  Mr. Serkis began developing this adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s stories (collected in the book All the Mowgli stories) back in 2013.  The script was written by Callie Klowes.  Mr. Serkis undertook the film as his directorial debut (though the project’s delays meant that Mr. Serkis’ second film as director, Breathe, was already released a year ago!).  Production began in 2015, but then it turned out that Disney was working on its own live-action movie based on this same material, Jon Favreau’s new live-action/CGI adaptation of the classic Disney animated film, The Jungle Book.  That film beat Mowgli to release by a long margin, hitting screens in 2016.  (I quite enjoyed it; click here for my review.)  Production delays, coupled with a desire to separate Mowgli’s release from that of Favreau’s The Jungle Book, continued to push back Mowgli’s theatrical debut.  Then, this past summer, Warner Brothers sold Mowgli to Netflix, bypassing a theatrical release and instead launching the film into people’s homes via Netflix.  (Click here for more on Mowgli’s journey to release, and click here for more on the film’s sale to Netflix.)

Mowgli is an enjoyable film, brought to life via gorgeous CGI and featuring a stupendous cast.  (By the way, the film’s promotional materials give the film the stupid subtitle of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.  I’m not sure why they felt the need to tack on that lame, useless subtitle.  Was it because they were planning on sequels, which would each be called Mowgli but with a different subtitle?  I’m pleased that, when the title appears in the actual film, it’s just called Mowgli, with no subtitle.  So that’s how I’ll be referring to this film in this review.)

Andy Serkis basically created an entirely new form of screen acting with his performance as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Mr. Serkis has become a master of performance capture, which allows actors’ performance on set to guide the work of the CGI artists who will later craft the appearance of the CGI character who will ultimately appear on screen.  Mowgli is a phenomenal showcase for Mr. Serkis’ skill.  Working as director and guiding his talented cast, Mr. Serkis has created a very unique-looking film, in which every frame of the film is filled with remarkable CGI characters who are nevertheless fully inhabited by and guided by the flesh-and-blood performers.

Far more than in Favreau’s The Jungle Book, the design of the animal characters here in Mowgli have been shaped to really bring out the actors’ faces and expressions.  (Nowhere is this more apparent than in Benedict Cumberbatch’s Shere Khan, who doesn’t look like any tiger I have ever seen before, but who is effective and striking as a character because of the way the design brings out Mr. Cumberbatch’s facial expressions.)

The animals also have a far more weathered, “lived-in” look than those in Favreau’s The Jungle Book.  Mr. Serkis and his team of talented craftspeople went for less of an iconic look for the animal characters and more of a specific, individualized design.  Many of the animals, particularly the older ones like Baloo and the panther Bagheera, look very beat up, showing the scars and damage of a lifetime of surviving in the jungle.  I really love this approach, and it fits nicely into the over-all visual style of the film, which has a strong tactile feel, with lots of dirt and blood.

The film looks gorgeous, a phenomenal blending of real-life locations with very realistic-looking CGI.  Mr. Favreau’s The Jungle Book was filmed almost entirely in the studio, and so almost every environment seen on-screen was created completely in the digital world.  Significant parts of Mr. Serkis’ Mowgli, by contract, were filmed on-location in South Africa.  The actual geography was, of course, extended and enhanced via CGI (not to mention all of the CGI talking animals).  The result is a gorgeous and seamless combination of reality and unreality.  Mowgli has a very striking and memorable look.

I’ve already mentioned Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book several times.  It’s a challenge to discuss Mowgli without considering Mr. Favreau’s film.  This does a disservice to Mr. Serkis’ film, which deserves to be evaluated on its own merits.  But it’s the reality that, because Mowgli lost the race to Favreau’s The Jungle Book, and because Favreau’s Jungle Book was so enjoyable and memorable, I found it difficult to watch Mowgli without constantly comparing it to The Jungle Book.  I feel bad for Mr. Serkis that his film was beaten to release by Mr. Favreau’s film.  And while I am happy that Netflix gave Mowgli a home and allowed the film to finally be seen by the public, it’s a shame that we don’t have an opportunity to experience the film on the big screen.  A huge part of the impact of Mr. Favreau’s The Jungle Book was the immersive experience of seeing the film in 3-D on the big screen.  I bet Mr. Serkis’ Mowgli would have really dazzled in that format.

After its striking visuals, the best reason to watch Mowgli is to enjoy this great cast.  The standout is Mr. Serkis himself, who gave himself the best role, that of the bear Baloo.  (Though, truth be told, it could be that the reason the Baloo is the standout character in the film isn’t inherent to the character itself, but rather to Mr. Serkis’ extraordinary skill at creating a motion-capture character, which perhaps allowed him to elevate his character over all the other performers’.)

Christian Bale is phenomenal as the panther Bagheera, showing us Bagheera’s kindness and his wise soul, but also his ferocity.  Benedict Cumberbatch is also terrific as the villain Shere Khan.  Mr. Cumberbatch can portray “intense” better than almost any other living actor, and he really dials into that and an animalistic danger in his work as Khan.  (Fun factoid: this is the second villainous Khan that Mr. Cumberbatch has portrayed, having previously played Khan Noonien Singh in J.J. Abrams’ (terrible) Star Trek: Into Darkness.)  Peter Mullan and Naomie Harris play Akela and Nisha, the two wolves who raise Mowgli as one of their own, and both are fantastic, bringing a lot of soulful emotion into their characters.  I also really enjoyed Tom Hollander (The Night Manager)’s work as Tabaqui, the somewhat off-his-rocker hyena who is Shere Khan’s right-hand goon.

Rohan Chand is the young boy who plays Mowgli, and he is terrific.  It’s a very intense, emotional performance, and I was very impressed by Mr. Chand’s emotional honesty.  There are a lot of shots of Mr. Chand in close-up, making it hard to hide any off notes.  I detected none.  I give major credit to Mr. Serkis for drawing such a terrific performance from this young actor.

I was surprised and delighted that The Americans’ Matthew Rhys popped up in the second half of the film, playing the hunter John Lockwood.  It is always a joy to see the talented Mr. Rhys on screen, but character needed more fleshing out.  Lockwood treats Mowgli kindly, but the film (and Mowgli himself) quickly turns on him as a monster who hunts animals for sport.  I’d have liked to see more nuance to his character.  He was, after all, brought in to stop Shere Khan, who was killing people and their animals.  This character didn’t have to be a villain.  I’d have liked to have seen Mowgli — and we, the audience — be far more torn about whether he should stay with Lockwood and the other humans or not, and whether Mowgli should turn the animals against Lockwood or not.

OK, forgive me for talking about Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book again.  It was interesting to me that, while the two films are different, Mowgli and The Jungle Book do follow a lot of the same plot points as their stories unfold.  (This made it hard for me not to compare the two films, as I noticed the places where their directors & writers made similar choices, and where their choices diverged.)  The films become the most different from one another in their third acts, which go in different directions.

Though, interestingly, they both wound up in about the same place.  I wasn’t crazy about the ending of Favreau’s Jungle Book, and while Mowgli has a very different ending, I wasn’t crazy about that ending either!  Both films seem to fail to address the inherent divide in Mowgli’s character.  Both return him to the jungle and treat that as a happy ending, which to me feels like a blind avoidance of the fact that this “happy ending” is probably going to turn weird and unhappy in just a few years, when Mowgli gets just a bit older.  Both films’ endings also seem sort of designed to leave room open for sequels that will likely never come, an annoying trend of many modern big-budget films that I absolutely hate.  (Having never read Mr. Kipling’s original Mowgli stories, I am not sure whether or not Mr. Kipling was able to arrive at a more satisfying conclusion to Mowgli’s journey than these two films.)

I am happy to have finally seen Mowgli.  Mr. Serkis and his team have created a wonderful film.  I am sorry it did not get the big screen release that it deserved, but thankful that Netflix has allowed the film to finally be seen.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s an entertaining and engaging new interpretation of these famous stories and characters.

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