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.