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MOWGLI Offers Little More Than the Bare Necessities

MOWGLI Offers Little More Than the Bare Necessities

Hollywood’s history of competing projects – from Lambada and The Forbidden Dance to Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down – reaches its peak, or possible nadir, with the release of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. The retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s stories was meant to compete with Disney’s 2016 The Jungle Book before reported budget issues and delays forced it onto the shelf. Where Jon Favreau offered a skillful cover version of the 1967 animated film that paid tribute as much to Disney’s legacy as Kipling’s, Andy Serkis opts for an unnecessarily “gritty” adaptation that showcases the actor-director’s CGI-enhanced performances, but otherwise fails to make Mowgli’s coming of age meaningful or unique.

Rohan Chand (Bad Words) plays Mowgli, a human child rescued from death at the jaws of Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) by the black panther Bagheera (Christian Bale) and raised by Nisha (Naomie Harris), Akela (Peter Mullan) and their wolf pack. As Mowgli grows into a sturdy, resilient young man, he finds himself constantly reminded that he is unlike his vulpine sisters and brothers, despite the bear Baloo’s (Serkis) best efforts to educate him about the laws of the jungle. But when Khan returns more determined than ever to kill Mowgli and assume a mantle of leadership in the jungle, Bagheera becomes convinced that the only way to protect him is to send him to a nearby human village where the tiger will not follow.

Alienated from his fellow children, Mowgli settles uneasily into the routines of human life thanks to the kindness of a local woman, Messua (Freida Pinto). But just as he begins to acclimate to their rituals and customs, Mowgli simultaneously discovers the humans’ aptitude for animal cruelty, and he receives word from his Brother wolf (Jack Reynor) that Khan has successfully disrupted the harmony of the wolf pack. Stranded between two communities that grow equally foreign with each new turn of events, Mowgli decides to confront Khan directly, hoping not only to conquer his enemy but discover his rightful place, which may fall somewhere in between the worlds of animals and men.

Serkis has long characterized Mowgli as a version of the story that audiences may not know, and in at least one way, he’s right: those expecting Louis Prima and the Sherman Brothers, not to mention attempts on the title character’s life that are more comical than bone-chilling will certainly be surprised – if not mildly traumatized – by this film. Mowgli’s origin story starts with him as a baby, covered in blood, sitting alone in the jungle as Shere Khan lunges at his parents, and finally, the camera. Serkis’ skill at generating believable performance-capture characters is so impressive that it’s honestly easy to forget that Rohan Chand isn’t actually being regularly terrorized by pythons and tigers and bears (and it does happen with alarming regularity). But the result of it is not a movie that makes audiences care more about Mowgli or what happens to him, at least not more than Favreau’s film, or even the ’67 animated version. This movie that takes itself so oppressively seriously that you lose a clear sense of what you’re supposed to take away from it other its impressive technical bona fides.

Still, the film does offer plenty to admire. Bale’s soulful performance as Bagheera offers a sophisticated take on a character who has in previous versions been decentralized. Here, the character is Mowgli’s closest confidante and also the character who sees most clearly where he does and does not fit in amongst the jungle flora and fauna. Cumberbatch has gotten too good at playing this kind of snarling villain, but playing opposite the likes of Naomie Harris, Peter Mullan, Cate Blanchett and Serkis himself, there’s a cohesion to the ensemble that lends Kipling’s material a welcome if not necessarily meaningful gravitas.

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. To be fair, that approach is a good idea, and one that hasn’t really been explored substantively, or at least in the way that Serkis does, in this character’s history on screen. 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.

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