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FILMS UK / US

Review: Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

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- British director Andy Serkis brings an innovative performance-capture technique to Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale

Review: Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle
Rohan Chand in Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

Such is the power of film – and in particular children’s animation – that Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is known to most people not through his 1894 collection of beautiful short stories, but through the 1967 Disney cartoon, which has memorable musical numbers that give an upbeat tone to the story of Mowgli, an abandoned baby who is taken in by an unusual foster family.

While others have tried to create movie versions of the story that are truer to the melancholy and struggle found in Kipling’s text, most notably the Oscar-nominated Korda brothers’ 1942 version and Stephen Sommers’ tame 1994 effort, they have largely failed or fallen into obscurity seemingly because they don’t have those bear necessities of life. Some have been more successful, such as Jon Favreau’s remake of the Disney cartoon, which came out in 2016 and briefly held the box-office record for the most successful remake of all time. It then capped this off by winning an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

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British director Andy Serkis’ Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle treads the dangerous path of staying true to the sentiment of the book, and for that it has already paid a heavy cinematic price. Serkis’ film, which was produced by his own British outfit, Imaginarium Productions, and was due to be distributed by Warner Bros, was put in the kind of limbo that Mowgli would be familiar with after it failed to beat Favreau’s version into the multiplexes and then looked on as Disney’s new version roared. The history of Hollywood has demonstrated that audiences have little appetite for two film versions of the same story coming out so close to each other, and usually, the first out of the blocks will win the day, especially when it’s a box-office smash. So Mowgli has been waiting on the sidelines for a couple of years, but thankfully it’s now been rescued. Netflix bought the distribution rights to the film, and the flick is finally getting a release via its VoD platform. And it’s been well worth the wait.

Serkis doesn’t forgo the darker elements of Kipling’s tales, in which the animals represent individual human traits. This makes Mowgli a more visceral and nightmarish experience, and closer to being the parable of society that Kipling intended. Not that Serkis has forgotten to make this film suitable for children (and big kids, too). Mowgli (Rohan Chand) is a character that youngsters can connect with, as we see him learn how to jump through trees and be just like the wolves that have raised him. He’s the innocence amidst all the darkness.

While Serkis doesn’t always get the tone right, as the film occasionally swings too much towards schmaltz, it’s a forgivable trait in a movie aimed at family audiences. The performance capture is impressive, managing to make the animals look real, while they also take on the traits of the actors playing them. Cate Blanchett is the snake Kaa, the black panther is Christian BaleBenedict Cumberbatch is the tiger Shere Khan, and Serkis himself breathes life into Baloo the bear. Aficionados will argue over whether these animals are rendered better than the equally excellent renderings found in Favreau’s version, but the fact that Serkis is even able to offer a challenge to the financial might of Disney, and come up trumps on occasions, shows that there may indeed be more than one lord of the jungle.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle was produced by the UK’s Imaginarium Productions, and the USA’s Warner Bros and Warner Bros Digital Networks.

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