Mowgli is Untamed But Underwhelming

The Jungle Book is a wonderfully fun and imaginative adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic that, until it opened, I feared would be a cold and unambitious reworking of one of Disney’s more underrated animated features.”

My wife wrote this regarding 2016’s Disney update, an engrossing tale that combined the best that 21st century wizardry had to offer while never forgetting its roots or its duty, first and foremost, to make you feel like a kid again, to feel everything. That’s quite a feat for a film nearly 75% computer generation. 2018’s darker rendition from motion-capture god Andy Serkis is in some ways what we all feared Favreau’s picture would be: cold and unambitious. The latter term might be harsh given the painstaking work that goes into motion-capture animation, but I think by the second time we’re simply desensitized to the wow factor of such technology. That statement could apply to many things in Mowgli. The thrill and eventual chill of a gang of monkeys watching Mowgli’s every move? We saw it two years ago. The silent majesty of elephants who come to Mowgli’s aid? We saw it two years ago. The menacing growl of an iconic actor’s voice as Sher Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Bagheera (Christian Bale)? We saw it two years ago. 

Unsurprisingly, Mowgli entices most when not retreading old ground. A twenty-minute detour from the story we know finds “man cub” captured by the local village. Here Mowgli meets a big game hunter (Matthew Rhys) hailing from England, a man called upon by locals to kill the great tiger. The boy is at first confused and full of contempt, spitting his food and biting his cage. Then, the boy is curious, willing to explore when his cage is opened. When he explores, he finds kindness in a brief mother figure (Frieda Pinto), and kinship in the other boys. We learn of the history between Khan and hunter, and for the first time we can feel Mowgli’s man vs. wolf predicament. Feeling is a rare thing in Legend of the Jungle, often cast aside in favor of jungle law platitudes and gorgeous images. Can’t blame Serkis for one of those, and he does capture a sense of grandeur that was unattainable for Favreau. Unlike Jungle Book, this iteration spends more time in the real jungle, forgoing CG landscapes for real foliage. Can’t blame him there either, particularly when attempts at the former are often downright cartoonish. 

Make no mistake, however, Mowgli is no cartoon. It’s full of blood, sweat, and tears, and doesn’t shy away from the violent, sometimes dog-eat-dog world of the jungle. You can see it in the fur, the wear and tear of many years spent fending off danger from man or animal. Baloo the bear (Serkis) is a rugged old man, Akela the alpha wolf (Peter Mullan) is aging too, not to mention a hyena spy (Tom Hollander) that carries flies and the bum leg on the big tiger himself. This jungle is one of consequence, and the litany of scars lends a heavy subtext to the plot as we’re made aware of nature’s fragility in the face of encroaching hostility, be it from the outside world or elsewhere. It’s just unfortunate that Serkis is still quite bound to the Kipling story, obligated to pursue the pack and Khan story when there’s a more fascinating tale of man and nature itching to be free. This is one version of the story where subtext might be better served with more text. On that note, I’ll leave you with a brief moment of dialogue uttered by the great Bale as Mowgli’s trusted panther, for it encapsulates where Serkis should have ventured further for originality’s sake. 

“I lived in a king’s palace, in a cage just like this. I bit, and I scratched, and I spent my entire life fighting. Until one day, I just stopped, and they gave me their trust. Gain their trust, and they’ll let you out.”

Grade: C+

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