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Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

Mowgli: "What happens if you fail?"
Baloo: "You don't JOIN THE PACK!"

Every so often, we're graced with the Twin Films phenomena, two movies that are produced by different studios yet retain roughly the same plot, such as Jobs and Steve Jobs, Hercules and The Legend of Hercules, or Die Hard and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. And so with the announcement of Netflix's Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, it didn't take long for many to scratch their heads and discern the sudden wave of déjà vu they were experiencing.

However, if only for the sake of keeping this review from getting muddled, I won't be referencing in the review itself Disney's The Jungle Book from 2016, simply because I feel The Jungle Book and Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle are actually two very different tales. For the record though, I will say that I did enjoy Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book back in 2016 substantially. When Director Andy Serkis began production on MLOTJ, the intent was to bring to the screen a much more faithful adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Books, which are an enjoyable and swift read themselves. For those unfamiliar with the books, I don't deny how odd it was to see the Twin Films phenomena at work once again, but I was pleasantly intrigued to finally see a fresh and borderline-forbidding spin on the Jungle Book mythos.

So if you're familiar with any interpretation of The Jungle Books, the basic plot points aren't too different with MLOTJ: lost man-cub taken in by wolves, trained to become a diligent member of the jungle's society, is discontent with how foreign he comes across to the other animals, has an uncanny superpower to avoid broken bones and concussions despite how many times he falls on his head, and just can't seem to get that orange and black striped puddy tat to leave him alone. BUT, because of MLOTJ's inspiration from the books, there are other elements to the story not traditionally seen in other Jungle Book interpretations. For instance, Bagheera and Baloo, while still two of Mowgli's closest allies in this movie, are characters who also work closely with the jungle's wolf pack to maintain order; both operate much like a drill sergeant who trains the young wolves in hunting, quick-thinking, and understanding the laws of the jungle. Kaa the python is not an antagonist, but rather an ancient clairvoyant who's said to be as old as the jungle itself, thereby doubling too as the jungle's own interactive history textbook. The orangutan King Louie is absent from these stories, as orangutans aren't native to the Indian jungle, and there's no singing animals either in this film. A definite disappointment to viewers who were hoping to cross off "hear Andy Serkis sing 'The Bear Necessities'" from their bucket list.

The atmosphere of the jungle itself is absolutely entrancing, even on a small screen. In this film's first half, I suddenly felt as if I had been taken into another world altogether, independent of time and containing creatures that are treated more like fables than they are mere organisms. Here, the law of the jungle reigns as the most important doctrine, and to violate that is one of the most serious offenses an inhabitant can make. Once the story kicks into gear, Serkis' attention to detail, which ranged from the insects crawling about on a lone shoe, to the flies that swarmed the animals, to the subtle scar across Mowgli's shoulder when we first meet him, continued to keep me immersed.

The voice cast for the animals are all on the money as well, particularly Andy Serkis as Baloo, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan. Serkis gives Baloo a very assertive presence, and though the bear is fond of Mowgli, he's a very vigorous creature too who is simply unafraid to smack around one of the young scoundrels if they step out of line. Cumberbatch as Shere Khan is a character who's an absolutely terrifying force of nature. I'm quite confident Khan would be equally as frightening even without any dialogue. Though he spends much of the film stalking Mowgli, because of how he is framed in some shots or how he blends in the background of the jungle's landscape, a viewer might also get the sense that they themselves are the hunted. The tiger also gets one of the most intimidating shots in the entire film; when Mowgli is training alongside the wolf cubs, there's a random cutaway to Mowgli exploring an underwater river, only to look up and see Shere Khan looking down on him while getting a drink. I assure you it looks much more eerie than it sounds.

As the film progresses though, it becomes apparent that many liberties were taken with the source material, in terms to the flow of the story. This movie draws most of its inspiration from the first three Kipling stories - Mowgli's Brothers, Kaa's Hunting, and Tiger! Tiger! My initial impression was that, in a manner similar to the 2004 film A Series of Unfortunate Events, there would be a near seamless flow throughout each of the three stories being adapted. Instead though, the three stories seem to be seeping into each other a little too much, and in some instances, the result is a mix that doesn’t produce the most tasteful results, the same way mixing incomplete Dinosaur DNA with frog DNA won’t bring tasteful results either. To give an example, after Mowgli is abducted by the Bandar-Logs (the monkey-people), he is confronted abruptly by Shere Khan and is on the brink of death until Bagheera, Baloo and Kaa suddenly show up, recover Mowgli, and drive Shere Khan off. I'm not sure as to how or why Shere Khan is hanging out with the Bandar-Logs, and I'm curious as to how Kaa's appearance was enough to scare off the tiger, because in the book, Shere Khan is not even present in the Bandar-Log arc, and Kaa is only able to recover Mowgli because he uses serpentine hypnosis to distract and eat the monkeys. Therefore, Shere Khan fleeing in this scene is quite peculiar because he didn't really have a place being there.

The stories occurring in the jungle also seem to feel rather rushed in order to give screentime too to the film's human antagonist (Matthew Rhys) and set up his involvement in the film's climax. It's puzzling to me that Serkis felt this film even needed a villain to begin with; part of the cleverness of the books was that there really wasn't a clearly defined villain, it was more just different factions of nature working against each other, so for this movie to have a character who's really only defined as an antagonist because he committed a dastardly act against one of the animals (I won't spoil this reveal because it was actually a little upsetting) just feels mean-spirited.

As for my recommendation, if you’re like me and were interested to see a new take on Kipling’s works, then you’ll be pleased to hear this adaptation is still an entertaining spectacle in spite of its pacing issues and forgettable villain, and it’s obvious too Serkis had a lot of dedication to stay as true to the books as he could throughout production.

One final thing to touch on, I found it a little jarring to see other critics pan elements of this film because it’s too dissimilar from Disney’s take; it’s not that I’d blame others if they didn’t enjoy Serkis’ version, but still, it’s a tad unfair for MLOTJ to receive this type of criticism from some unfamiliar with the original source material, the same way it isn’t fair for one to critique waterboarding at Guantanamo Bay for not being that thrilling an experience when they didn’t know what either of those terms meant to begin with.

Aaron Studer loves spending his time reading, writing and defending the existence of cryptids because they can’t do it themselves.

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