It’s possible you’ve already heard that Mowgli, Andy Serkis’ take on the Jungle Book story, is a dark film. This is true, and yet the film is not nearly dark enough to satisfy those looking for a buck wild kid’s movie. There are no songs (in fact, King Louie is omitted completely), the violence is played for realism and - in one case - shock, and the animals aren’t meant to be cute. Side-by-side with Jon Favreau’s version, you’re definitely getting a tougher movie. It’s not really for kids, but it also doesn’t seem like the kind of thing adults would run to either.
There is an interesting movie here, however. While the proximity to 2016’s Jungle Book may hinder any urgency to see this particular story again, Serkis does fulfill the promise of having a motion capture expert direct a film about talking animals. As expected, the performances are quite good without actor likenesses getting too distracting. These are particularly different takes on the characters than the ones we’re familiar with through Disney and the distinction helps give Mowgli a much-needed sense of identity. Serkis’ broken-faced Baloo is more stern than friendly. Christian Bale’s Bagheera is soulful and quiet. There’s even a moment of weird pathos granted to Tom Hollander’s Hyena villain Tabaqui. Almost every figure plays down their role in search of subtlety over volume. Bale is especially good here, as he was for his Howl’s Moving Castle vocal performance.
But the big winner performance-wise is young Rohand Chand as Mowgli. It’s always risky putting too much upon the shoulders of a child actor. While Chand has some moments of emotion that aren’t 100% there, most of his delivery works, and saves the film from what clearly would have been a disaster were that not the case. The story is basically all-Mowgli all the time. We believe him as a feral child, we believe his wonder and joy when he meets humans for the first time, we believe his sadness, and most of all, near the end when he gets pissed and goes all-Rambo, we believe that too.
Mowgli is a film that actually gets better as it goes. Serkis’ Lord of the Rings experience works against him at times, particularly during Cate Blanchett’s opening narration that directly recalls the trilogy. But as the story progresses, things smooth out and a comfortable rhythm develops. Perhaps against expectations, the human scenes later in the film are some of its best. Serkis doesn’t need animals and motion capture to a story, and I’m curious to see what he does next as a director because he does not appear to be limited to special effects work.
Unfortunately some of the visuals themselves are limited. This is not a Disney movie and cannot achieve the same visual splendor Favreau enjoyed. The animals look fine, if a bit rough around the edges. In an attempt for realism, they also lack iconic features to make their characters stand out. More than anything, however, the jungle visuals are not up to par. Much of the film is at night, and environments simply do not hit the standards we have grown to expect.
But that’s okay. Once Mowgli’s story starts hitting its stride, visuals are a secondary concern to character. Serkis and his actors keep our attention on the film’s strengths for the most part. And while there are bizarre decisions here and there (I could be wrong, but Mowgli appears to have a painted-on six-pack), this is a film that speaks highly of Serkis as a director, when the lead up to its release felt like it could have gone the other way. Its lack of a theatrical release now seems well-suited. Mowgli simple isn’t big enough to have competed at the box office. It’s too idiosyncratic anyway. On the other hand, it’s not original enough to garner any kind of specialized audience on Netflix either. It’s a down the middle effort. Not too good, but not bad. Those curious about Serkis’ take on the material will find entertainment, but those who lack such curiosity probably won’t find a convincing enough reason to hit play.