REVIEW: Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is an Engaging, Visceral and Underdeveloped Experience
Andy Serkis’ adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” takes the story in a grimmer direction, that is enjoyable enough to overcome storytelling shortcomings. We follow Mowgli (Rohan Chand) - a young boy adopted by wolves – trying to prove himself capable of surviving in the jungle whist the villainous, human-hating tiger, Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) seeks to kill him.
The best parts of the film are definitely the performances and the character interactions. Rohan Chand and Christian Bale are particular standouts, with solid chemistry. Chand manages to delve into Mowgli’s bravery and confused identity, while Bale’s Bagheera emanates protectiveness and wisdom. The earnestness and sincerity, without any coddling, depicted in Mowgli’s interactions with Bhageera and Baloo (Andy Serkis) help us buy into their familial relationship. Mowgli also has a wonderfully sweet friendship with Bhoot, an albino wolf, who is also ostracized by some of the meaner wolves.
The motion capture-based visuals are this movie’s most distinct feature, with its choice to mold the animals’ facial features to resemble the actor voicing them. While the expressions and emotions are all really well rendered, there’s an uncanny look to having human eyes on animals. Characters like Bagheera and the elephants look solid for the most part, but Baloo and the wolves occasionally appear more like animated taxidermy. Shere Khan’s facial design looks particularly odd, which sadly takes away from his fierce portrayal.
Plot-wise, Mowgli has most of the same story beats as previous versions. There are some entertaining additions like the initiation challenge where young wolves (and Mowgli) must evade Bagheera to prove their worthiness to the pack. The movie also emphasizes the various rules of the jungle and the wolves’ values, which does a great job establishing their way of life, even if these practices were made a bit unclear or glanced over.
What makes Mowgli stand apart from its movie counterparts is its grittier (and occasionally inconsistent) tone. The surprising amount of blood and violence depicted is hit or miss. On one hand, the film does a solid job of presenting the jungle as a truly dangerous place. Mowgli is muddied and bloodied throughout his escapades, emphasizing the difficulty of survival in the wild. The scene where Mowgli’s holding his breath underwater as Shere Khan washes his bloody face is effectively tense. However, when you have talking animals and a child at the centre, some of the violence presented does feel a bit out of a place.
The film is hurt primarily by some uneven pacing and underdeveloped plot points. While the first half works well to establish the setting, characters and main story-line, the latter half is rushed, with themes and character motivations feeling unclear. The films’ attempt to deal with identity doesn’t get as fleshed out as needed. Although it is nice that we get to explore the humans’ village more, Mowgli’s time there is too brief and not developed enough to convince us that he really planned on staying with them. His transitions from initially accepting life with the humans, to re-joining the animal pack feel too quick and unwarranted.
Serkis’ manages to get solid performances from his actors and create engaging character interactions to make you care. The visual style and gritty tone help differentiate the film from other adaptation’s, even though they don’t always work well. While the story isn’t executed too its fullest potential, there is enough going for it to make Mowgli a worthwhile watch.