Since its release in 1967, The Jungle Book has brought joy to the hearts of children around the world. Despite some of the film’s more problematic elements it has carried on through generations thanks to its charismatic spirit and pure heart meant to instill warmth in the viewer.
The 2016 re-imagining amped up the excitement and fun as it brought the story into the modern age. Now with Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, Netflix is looking to get in on the party, but while the film came dressed to impress it’s quickly apparent that it doesn’t know how to have fun.
Like its predecessors, Mowgli tells the story of the titular human child (Rohan Chand) who is raised by a pack of wolves after his family is slaughtered by the tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch). Under the guidance of the bear Baloo (Andy Serkis) and a black panther named Bagheera (Christian Bale), he attempts to adapt to the ways of the jungle. But when he is forced to confront his origins, Mowgli must decide on his place in the world.
Mowgli makes a promising first impression with its visual effects. Director Andy Serkis made his name off of his memorable motion capture performances as Gollum and Caesar in The Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes franchises respectively, and he utilizes his experience in the technology to produce enthralling recreations of beloved characters. Each animal conveys who they are and their motives through simple facial details and movements. Kahn commands power and distrust as he slinks through the trees, and speckles of gray highlighting Bagheera’s chin support his mentor status to Mowgli.
Serkis and his team remove many of the barriers that often inhibit viewers from connecting with CGI characters. Serkis’ guidance of Chand is evident. The young actor’s interactions with his digital co-stars rarely feel like a facade. Whether looking into the eyes of a snake or being lifted by an elephant, Chand’s minute movements help the CGI feel tangible. It’s not something that you’ll actively notice on first viewing, but that’s the whole objective – it should fade into the background.
The visuals do have a dark side, however, one that the film is often too quick to indulge in. Mowgli separates itself from previous renditions of The Jungle Book with a PG-13 rating. This allows the movie to amp up the tension, and the persistent threats on Mowgli’s life are given more weight than one would expect from The Jungle Book.
It quickly begins to feel overbearing and depressing; the film is missing the heart one has come to expect from this tale. An infant Mowgli covered in the blood of his parents is a different visual than we would expect, but is it better or even necessary? It’s a question that comes up too many times while sitting through Mowgli.
The film doesn’t deserve to get lambasted just because it took the chance on a darker aesthetic. The new directions can usually justify retellings of familiar stories, but Callie Kloves’ screenplay wasn’t updated to match the film’s visual style. The plot is told with the familiar and simplistic trappings of a common children’s film. Mowgli shares the theme of self-discovery with the previous films, and it explores it as deeply as one would expect a ten-year-old.
These two clashing approaches leave one wondering who the film’s audience was meant to be. The PG-13 rating is intended to scare off younger ones from stumbling across a movie that features the taxidermy of a cute, childlike character, but the script doesn’t feature enough nuance to keep the more mature audience engaged. While Mowgli contains a little something for everyone, it ultimately feels like a film meant for no one.