MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE
Even with the anti-hype machine in full swing, I held fast to my faith in Andy Serkis' Mowgli as the better of the two Jungle Books we were going to get this decade. Unfortunately, I can't say my faith was wholly justified, even if Mowgli does offer a fair amount to enjoy.
Directed by Andy Serkis
Written by Callie Kloves (based on stories by Joseph Rudyard Kipling)
With Rohan Chand (Mowgli), Christian Bale (Bagheera), Andy Serkis (Baloo), Peter Mullan (Akela), Naomie Harris (Nisha), Louis Ashborne Serkis (Bhoot), Cate Blanchett (Kaa), Freida Pinto (Messua), Matthew Rhys (John Lockwood), Tom Hollander (Tabaqui), and Benedict Kumberbatch (Shere Khan)
Spoiler alert: moderate
Spoiler alert: moderate
Though Warner Brothers' Jungle Book adaptation didn't begin with him, it was when Andy Serkis took the project over that it caught my attention; bear in mind, this was a very long time ago, so when this Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu guy passed it up in favor of something called "Birdman," it wasn't a matter for disappointment. I've been a big fan of Serkis, going back a lot of years: his Gollum's one of the best parts of those LotR movies, and it's certainly not his fault you can feel distant galaxies recede while you're watching them; more recently, his chimpanzee king, Caesar, has become just about the defining achievement of the medium he's mostly chosen to express himself in, motion capture animation. He's not always been humble about his contributions, but he's been fighting to be known from behind a cloud of increasingly well-rendered pixels; it's hard to blame him for his overreach, even if one of the more negatively memorable things about Serkis is that time he was a self-aggrandizing asshole to the CGI artists who made his groundbreaking performances possible. Still, that was later (it's easy to forget how long ago this was), and when the master of mo-cap acting decided to try his hand at mo-cap filmmaking, overseeing an ensemble of terrific actors (and presumably teaching them his ways), while making peace with his technicians (and also giving them a place to work, at his and Jonathan Cavendish's mo-cap-centric Imaginarium Studios), what can I say? Of course I was excited.
That was, as I said, a long time ago, and The Jungle Book: Origins, retitled to Mowgli, retitled again to Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, isn't even Serkis' directorial debut anymore. That honor, I guess, belongs to Breathe, a tiny historical drama I had never heard of till I double-checked Serkis' Wikipedia page five minutes ago. Rudely shoved out of the way by Disney's own "live-action" juggernaut in 2016, and apparently just sitting around until it was unceremoniously sold to Netflix rather than released to a loss in theaters, there's not a film nor a filmmaker I felt more sympathy toward this year than Mowgli and its poor director, whose passion and artistry were overridden by the bigger company with the bigger computers and the blander, more friendly take on the material. But as the reviews came in, I started to recalibrate my expectations, and "recalibrated expectations" is probably the ideal way to approach Mowgli as it exists. It's good, very good even, for much of its runtime; even so, and more than a little annoyingly, it tends to have the exact same basic problem as Disney's Jungle Book, though at least it doesn't have all the same specific problems.
So the first thing most reviewers will mention (especially if they don't write a discursive mini-essay about the film's production history) is that Mowgli's mo-cap animals are off, just diving headfirst into the uncanny valley and never, ever recovering. And this is not not true, though this sort of thing tends to be in the eye of the beholder: the first couple of minutes of Mowgli are in fact a little concerning in this regard, because it really is kind of outright bizarre. It is, of course, not unprecedented to push a human face through an animal body; disregarding that this is practically the very basis of the whole talking animal cartoon genre, the marriage of a photorealistic animal with human facial characteristics is, after all, the primary driver behind Caesar. The difference is that it's a lot cleaner to human up another primate, and Mowgli runs the gamut of mammals, and even non-mammals—a panther, a sloth bear, a Bengal tiger, one very questionably large python—and all of them are at least a little bit identifiable as Christian Bale, Andy Serkis himself, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Cate Blanchett, who was probably tickled pink that she'd get to be something even weirder than she got to be in all those other movies where she was weird, and this time she wouldn't even have to suffer through hours of makeup.
The thing is, once you get used to it, and I got used to it rather quickly, Imaginarium's animators strike an extraordinarily fine (and presumably very difficult) balance between human and animal, though the extent of their success depends markedly on the fundamental design: Bale's Bagheera (that's the panther) is incredible, and whatever problems accrue to Cumberatch's Shere Khan (the tiger) are not to be found in the fact that Cumberbatch's face is replicated rather faithfully in the cat; Serkis' Baloo (the bear) spends half the movie being a terrible caricature of Serkis and Serkis' asymmetrical eyes in bear form, and the other half being a terrifically solid emotional creation, and you just never know which it's going to be in any given shot; and Kaa is just so wholly misconceived that the fact the snake has lips is kind of secondary. The wolves, Akela and Nisha, whom I tend to forget are Mowgli's "parents," since every film version I am aware of (including this one) treats Bagheera and Baloo as Mowgli's actual primary caregivers, are also rather good.
Altogether, it allows for a tremendous array of emotions to wash over these digital animal faces, and, for Mowgli's purposes, that's exactly what Mowgli needed. Better yet, I presume the mo-cap process gave young Rohan Chand other actors to actually act against, and while I'm hardly going to condemn Neel Sethi, who likely had the harder task on Jungle Book '16, Chand is a markedly superior Mowgli just on the basis of him always feeling like he's fully interacting with his animal compatriots, which in concert with Mowgli's meatier material tends to give this version a certain edge over the film it's impossible to not compare it to. And, hey, for whatever it's worth, Mowgli's mo-cap is actually vastly less jarring to my eyes than Disney's lip-flapping true photorealism, which produced animal cartoons barely distinguishable from nature footage but still had to make them talk, something actual animals famously cannot do for many highly scientific reasons, and which therefore freaked me out something fierce despite (because of!) everything else being so "on-model" to the animals they were supposed to be. And then there was an orangutan King Kong and the movie was actively terrible for a solid thirty minutes. So: whatever else Mowgli does wrong, it doesn't do that.
The skeleton of the tale Mowgli tells is bound to be familiar, and when we catch up with this man-cub orphaned by Shere Khan, we find that Mowgli has spent his years training hard in the ways of the jungle under Bagheera and a surprisingly severe (and therefore somewhat redundant) Baloo. Mowgli's almost ready to try to join his wolfpack as an adult, which is nice for Akela and Nisha, given that, realistically, both wolves would almost certainly have died ages ago. But when Shere Khan returns to finish the man-cub, Bagheera's long-held doubts crystallize, and he decides that the man-village is the only safe place for Mowgli. Mowgli very much disagrees, but doesn't have much choice when he fails his trials, and, in the face of a wolfpack coup, he humiliates himself in a way only a man-cub could, ultimately getting himself exiled, captured, and finally embraced by the humans of the man-village below.
This is where things start getting different, and up till now (in fact, even for a little while afterward), Mowgli is a damned fine Jungle Book movie, trading on Mowgli's differences, and the alienation he suffers as a result, and on the ambivalence of a panther who loves this man-cub too much to merely give in to what he foolishly wants. It puts little spins on things that may not be ideal, but at least give this rendition of the story its own identity, like including the cackling hench-hyena Tabaqui, who offers some of the more poetic and depressing pieces of wisdom Mowgli gets, though at the outset he appears to be (and, unfortunately, to a great extent does indeed wind up being) an atonal element of comic relief that feels lifted from the Disney formula, even if this particular character isn't. As for Shere Khan himself, it's a rather distinct take: the fearsome tiger has actually been lightly crippled by his conflict with humankind, and this Khan, who provokes human reprisal against the whole jungle, is a nihilistically deranged villain, rather than the implacable force of nature who takes Mowgli's measure and isn't actually that wrong about him. But not everything quite fits together—good God, when Mowgli tries to be light-hearted with its (scarce) humor, it is outrageously bad, never moreso when it surrenders the light touch of anthropomorphism of its characters for full-on animal cartoons that barely pretend to be anything but people in CGI suits. On the plus side, these moments are so abrasive precisely because they're rare, and because Mowgli is so sober otherwise, never unwilling to be cruel to Mowgli, because, after all, being caught between man and beast is a very cruel place to be.
Where Mowgli stumbles is where it wants to upend things. Not necessarily because it wants to (though at this point, I don't think I'd mind a straightforward Jungle Book that didn't raise the question of whether Mowgli's going to wind up fucking a wolf), but because it simply doesn't earn it: Kaa takes on a more sizeable role than usual (I say, not intending that to be a pun, though Mowgli follows The Jungle Book '16's tack of one nonsensically large Kaa, and without the horror-movie energy that justified it there; it also follows the tack of making Kaa female, but I like that). Her pythonic wiles have been recast as outright mystic powers, and she's even taken on the task of narrating things for us, prophesying a role for Mowgli, neither man nor wolf, in defending the jungle from humankind. This, clearly, is the film's whole mythic arc, which is why it's kind of a shame that none of it actually happens, notwithstanding Blanchett's concluding narration that says it did. What does happen is that screenwriter Callie Kloves introduces a great white hunter staying in the Indian man-village, and though I doubt the way this goes will surprise you even slightly (even if it may startle you), there's a terrible dissonance in that while he objectively deserves the intense punishment he receives, narratively, he doesn't; and if absolutely nothing else, the punishment of an antagonist who never realizes they're the antagonist (indeed, who never realizes he's in any conflict with the hero at all), is the diametric opposite of "satisfying," whereas his genuine kindness to Mowgli is apparently so meaningless to Mowgli that it's entirely possible that nobody involved even realized there was any tension here. (The credits also name him John Lockwood, as in "John Lockwood Kipling," the author's father as well as his Mowgli stories' original illustrator, and I don't know what to make of that.)
What it leaves us with is a film that, for all the intensity it can bring to bear in Mowgli's relationships with his friends, has no fully-formed story, and not a whole lot of ideas as to what to do with its action-adventure elements; and while it's never as incoherent or as bad as The Jungle Book '16 can get, it's never as breathtakingly successful, either. (It's arguably not even as violent, despite its grimmer tone.) Amongst the ideas Mowgli has, some work out: Kaa's premonition, enacted across her scales (the only possible justification here for her absurd size), is at least admirably trippy; the bit where Mowgli, diving in a pool only to find himself trapped underwater by an oblivious Shere Khan above, drooling the blood of a fresh kill, is one fantastic piece of thrillmaking. But Mowgli undoes itself in the end with a climax that is somehow both too complicated and too easy. So if you ever wanted to see a Jungle Book where Shere Khan is reduced from force of nature to unhinged villain and then reduced again, to complete non-threat, then this is The Jungle Book for you... I said, to literally nobody.