Jon Favreau

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

20/12/18

You have to feel a little bit sorry for Andy Serkis. This film was his brainchild and he worked on it for something like five years, only to find himself pipped at the post by Jon Favreau’s (admittedly, impressive) live action Jungle Book, made for Disney. After that, the projected release dates for Mowgli were repeatedly pushed back by Warner Brothers, who clearly believed the public wasn’t quite ready for yet another version of such a familiar tale – and then, of course, along came Netflix, waving a chequebook and everything changed.

The first thing to say about Serkis’s film is that it’s a much darker and more feral beast than either of the Disney incarnations. This has a 12 certificate, so those parents thinking of sitting their toddlers down in front of it while they get on with the Christmas dinner might want to think twice. Screenwriter Callie Kloves, for the most part, sticks closely to Rudyard Kipling’s original short stories, so within a few minutes of the film’s opening I’ve witnessed the slaughter of Mowgli’s parents by man-eating tiger, Shere Kahn (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), a scene that little children may find too red in tooth and claw for comfort. Kipling’s story was always a brutal one, reflecting the abandonment he felt as a youngster when his parents left him in the care of ruthless guardians while they headed back to India, and this film reflects that wildness.

Baby Mowgli grows up to be young Mowgli (Rohan Chand), who lives with wolves headed by Akela (Peter Mullan), but he never feels as though he’s a full member of the pack. As he grows, he is tutored by good-natured bear, Baloo (Andy Serkis, and by stern black panther, Bagheera (Christian Bale), both of whom try to teach him the basic laws of the jungle. (Happily they achieve this without ever bursting into song, something that Favreau’s version couldn’t quite resist.) Meanwhile, Mowgli can’t help casting an enquiring eye in the direction of the ever-encroaching humans, who day-by-day are venturing closer to the wolves’ hideout.

It’s when Mowgli visits the human’s village that the biggest changes to the original story occur. The presence of big game hunter, Lockwood (Matthew Rhys), is clearly intended to be a comment on white imperialism (though why it was decided to give this character the same name as Kipling’s father remains an enigma). Lockwood gives the impression of being a benevolent saviour, always ready to hand out gifts to the local villagers, but his home is full of grisly hunting trophies, one of which provides the film with its most poignant moment. Ultimately, Mowgli learns that while he isn’t an animal, he isn’t exactly a human either. He must somehow be the bridge that unites the different species and the only way to achieve this aim is for him to take on his greatest foe.

Once again, here’s a Netflix Original that really deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available. There are lush landscapes, stunning aerial shots and dramatic chases. The animal characterisations are particularly interesting, eschewing the photo-realistic approach of Favreau’s effort in favour of more stylised creatures that really do reflect the expressions of the actors that play them. Cate Blanchett as Kaa, the snake? She’s right there and, weirdly, you can tell it’s her.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a remarkable creation in its own right and one that deserves to exist proudly alongside those earlier screen versions of Kipling’s classic tale. But be warned, this has teeth and isn’t afraid to use them.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney   

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Spider-Man: Homecoming

09/07/17

Of all of Stan Lee’s famous superheroes, Spider-Man was always my favourite when I was growing up. While I dipped in and out of many of the other comics, this was the one I kept coming back to.

On the big screen, Spidey has had a somewhat chequered career. Sam Raimi managed to knock out a couple of decent films with Tobey McGuire in the red suit, but most people would agree that his third installment didn’t really work. Then of course there was the appropriately named Mark Webb’s attempt at a reboot with Andrew Garfield brooding in the title role. Webb gave us two movies, neither of which really brought anything fresh to the party, so the news that the team at Marvel were finally getting the opportunity to give their most celebrated creation a canter around the paddock didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm. (The rights to the character belonged to Sony for those earlier pictures – here they’ve agreed to a co-production with Marvel.)

Happily I was wrong. This is easily the best Spiderman movie so far and, arguably, one of the best superhero movies ever, made doubly enjoyable largely by virtue of the fact that director Jon Watts has jettisoned the usual grim and grimy approach in favour of something lighter, fresher, and a lot funnier. And thankfully, he’s skipped the ‘Spiderman origin’ aspect completely, because by now we all know it by heart, right?

Fifteen year old Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is working hard on his ‘internship’ with Tony Stark/Ironman (Robert Downey Junior), which pretty much means that he’s left to his own devices, patrolling his local neighbourhood in his spare time, taking care of petty criminals and the like, under the supposedly watchful gaze of Stark’s chauffeur, Happy (Jon Favreau). But when, as Spiderman, Peter comes up against Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and his gang, things become a lot more complicated. Toomes has made use of salvaged alien technology left over from the last Avengers dust-up and, utilising that, has restyled himself as super villain The Vulture. The trouble is, Peter’s attempts to alert Happy to this new threat largely fall on deaf ears… and meanwhile, he has to negotiate the kind of problems that every teenager goes through – passing his exams, fitting in with his peers and dealing with a powerful crush on a classmate – in this case, Liz (Laura Harrier).

What this new film gives us, finally, is a credible teenage hero. Neither McGuire nor Garfield managed to really convince as high schoolers. Holland, such a powerful presence in The Impossible a few years back, is incredibly appealing here, displaying an almost puppylike eagerness to please his mentor, Stark and also pulling off some expertly-timed slapstick pratfalls. And the credibility extends in other directions. At last, in Toomes, we have a believable villain, a man motivated not by some obscure desire to destroy the world, but simply to better himself and his family after being screwed over by the big corporations. Aunt May is not the white-haired elderly widow we’ve come to expect but, as played by Marisa Tomei, she’s a gutsy, interesting character, doing her very best to bring up her nephew.

Despite the involvement of six screenwriters, the sprightly script keeps us guessing and, at one point, even manages to throw a great big googly ball at us that I really didn’t see coming.

Homecoming has the kind of chutzpah that should keep everybody happy, from devoted comic book fans to parents simply looking to give their kids a fun ride at the cinema. Make sure you stay in your seats until the end credits have rolled – the film has one last, very funny scene, to send you out of the cinema with a great big smile on your face.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney