Since being published in 1923, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book has been adapted for pretty much every era in a multitude of mediums. Most famously, Disney’s 1967 animation brought Kipling’s world to life; introducing the world to man-cub Mowgli and his anthropomorphic friends. In Mowgli, the second feature film directed by Andy Serkis, you won’t find any happy songs or care-free adventures. Serkis’ adaptation goes right back to the source, highlighting the anthology nature of The Jungle Book and zoning in on the moralistic survivalist of Mowgli’s chapters.
First off, Serkis has set himself a tough challenge. The Jungle Book is one of Disney’s most loved properties, and it only just got a gritty remake in 2016 from Jon Favreau. The proximity of adaptations is a bit weird and maybe not the best business decision, especially when the two adaptations share so many gritty modern sensibilities. It seems a particular shame that Serkis‘ film was pushed back, to avoid going head to head with the Favreau project, when it seems to have been kicked off first and offers a fresher perspective on such a well-loved character.
Serkis has cut the songs, and the light-hearted adventure of the Disney adaptation, in order to strip the story back to Kipling’s nature-wary caper. The jungle is dark and dangerous; built on laws and hierarchy, survivalist, and team work. There’s a visceral danger to the whole thing which puts it a bit outside the kid-friendly arena Disney’s adaptations stayed in. For one thing, Serkis doesn't shy from realism and has no qualms with letting his animals be animals, human voices or not. The fight sequences are visceral and blood spattered, chases are exhilarating and wonderfully kinetic, fully utilising the jungle environment. It’s a tooth and nail world where wandering from the pack spells certain death and the dangers are not limited to a tiger and some hyenas.
Seem of that physicality and danger comes hand in hand with the motion capture used to bring the animals to life. Serkis has become synonymous with Mo-Cap after his work on the Apes films and the Lord of the Rings, so it makes sense that he’d bring that technology to Mowgli in an attempt to give it a vibrant modern makeover. It seems there’s no shortage of A-List actors when it comes to adapting classic Disney either and Serkis has called in, amongst others, some of his LOTR and Hobbit fellows, for a less cuddly ensemble than the 2016 film. Serkis himself makes a great gruff cockney Baloo, Christian Bale is a colder Bagheera, Peter Mullan is a mercurial Akela, Benedict Cumberbatch is an underwhelming Shere Khan in the face of Idris Elba’s, but Cate Blanchett is a better Kaa than Scarlett Johansson was. There’s no signing Christopher Walken or cuddly Bill Murray like there was with Favreau so even in the casting department it feels a bit bolder.
Serkis was right to sell his adaptation as darker than the one Disney produced two years ago, but, as you might expect, it’s not as much fun. Clearly bored of the same old Disney-isms, Serkis wants to peel that cosy layer off Kipling’s work and deliver a true adaptation which doesn’t avoid the realities of animal life or the natives who live near-by. The result is a balanced and cathartic jungle caper with a decent core message about staying true to who you are. It’s got a lot of heart, plenty of shocks, and doesn't overstay its welcome.
MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: ANDY SERKIS / SCREENPLAY: CALLIE KLOVES / STARRING: CHRISTIAN BALE, CATE BLANCHETT, BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH, NAOMIE HARRIS, ANDY SERKIS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected Rating: 5 out of 10