Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle


You can’t always tell a Jungle Book by its cover.

(2018) Adventure (NetflixRohan Chand, Frida Pinto, Christian Bale (voice), Andy Serkis (voice), Benedict Cumberbatch (voice), Cate Blanchett (voice), Tom Hollander (voice), Matthew Rhys, Naomie Harris (voice), Peter Mullan (voice), Jack Reynor (voice), Eddie Marsan (voice), Louis Ashbourne Serkis (voice), Keveshan Pillay, Patrick Godfrey, Lorna Brown. Directed by Andy Serkis

 

Hollywood from time to time gets it in their head to make competing versions of similar stories, whether it’s of apocalyptic astronaut strikes, or remakes of beloved children’s classics.

Most folks are well-aware of the story behind this film, originally a group of short stories penned by British author Rudyard Kipling but not likely from reading the book so much as by seeing the 1967 Disney cartoon. Serkis’ version, which was actually filmed three years before it was released, is a much darker version that in many ways was closer to the stories that Kipling wrote but with enough family-friendly elements to lend confusion as to what this movie wants to be.

The motion capture is generally of facial expressions which becomes a bit of a liability; it’s kind of creepy to see snakes and wolves and bears looking quite that human. The CGI in general is pretty uneven, which considering the amount of post-production time that was available to them seems almost criminal. However, the vocal performances are uniformly swell and American-born child actor Chand shows some impressive athleticism and acting range in this role.

The film was intended to be the first of a trilogy of films establishing what Warner Brothers (the original studio behind the film – see Trivial Pursuit) a franchise but with Disney beating them to the punch doing what they do best, and with that version making like a kajillion dollars at the box office, there was no way this was going to end up as anything other than a footnote, which it really didn’t deserve. Certainly there are flaws, but despite the dark and sometimes brutal tone it is at least a different riff on a familiar tune.

REASONS TO SEE: Impressive voice performances. An interesting subplot about identity.
REASONS TO AVOID: The CGI is uneven. Neither a family film nor one meant for adults.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence – some of it bloody – peril and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally filmed by Warner Brothers to be released in 2016, but Disney’s own version forced them to push back the release a year, and then another as the effects proved more time-consuming than first thought. Only a few months before it was scheduled to be released in theaters, the film was sold to Netflix, the studio rightly thinking that their version would be unfairly compared to the much more family-friendly Disney version.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Jungle Book
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Capernaum

The Jungle Book (2016)


Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

(2016) Family (Disney) Neel Sethi, Bill Murray (voice), Ben Kingsley (voice), Idris Elba (voice), Lupita Nyong’o (voice), Scarlett Johansson (voice), Giancarlo Esposito (voice), Christopher Walken (voice), Garry Shandling (voice), Brighton Rose (voice), Emjay Anthony (voice), Jon Favreau (voice), Russell Peters (voice), Sam Raimi (voice), Ritesh Rajan, Sara Arrington (voice). Directed by Jon Favreau

 

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is rightly considered a children’s classic. The Disney animated version, while not near the top of their list, is at least considered one of the better animated films of its era, complete with a passel of Sherman brothers tunes that continue to be quoted by Disney in their theme parks and commercials.

A live action version continues Disney’s string of live action features based on their animated films and in many ways this is the most challenging project yet. Director Favreau, who is best known for the first two Iron Man films, was an inspired choice to direct this, having done family films as well as big special effects extravaganzas as well.

Mowgli (Sethi) is a young human child raised by wolves after the death of his father (Rajan). Alpha male Akela (Esposito) and his noble wife Raksha (Nyong’o) take on the responsibility of raising the boy as a wolf. Try as he might to fit in, Mowgli has just two legs and no claws to speak of. However he is a cheerful boy and an inventive thinker. Panther Bagheera (Kingsley) is also nearby, making sure that Mowgli is raised right.

Also nearby, unfortunately, is Shere Khan (Elba), a disfigured tiger whose burns had been received at the hands of Mowgli’s dad before the big cat sent him on his way to meet his maker. When Shere Khan finds out that Mowgli is about, he blows a gasket. No human will live safely in his forest while he lives, and Shere Khan sets out to eliminate Mowgli from the board.

Akela and Bagheera agree that Mowgli must leave the pack, despite the laws of the pack that seem to indicate that the pack is stronger together rather than splitting up. Bagheera tries to escort Mowgli to the safety of the human village but Shere Khan finds out and Mowgli and Bagheera are separated. Mowgli is found by Baloo ((Murray), a happy-go-lucky bear who finds a stroke of good luck when Mowgli, ever-inventive, figures out a way for Baloo to get the honeycombs that are high on the top of a mountain that Baloo is unable to reach. Even in this idyllic interlude, the jungle isn’t safe; not only is the tiger after Mowgli but so is King Louie (Walken), the clever but crazed leader of the apes who has an eye on the secret of fire which only Mowgli can unravel as well as Kaa (Johansson), a seductive serpent whose only concern is making Mowgli her lunch.

Sethi is the only onscreen actor who gets any significant time; all the other animal characters and indeed the jungle setting itself is all digitally created. It’s an impressive technical achievement, achieving a photorealistic jungle as well as the animals within it. The computer animators achieve actual personalities in the anthropomorphic subjects, with Baloo’s happy-go-lucky bear augmented by Murray’s acerbic wit; Bagheera’s sleek black form is bolstered with his expressions of annoyance and occasional contentment. It is somewhat ironic that only Mowgli himself is poorly drawn as a character.

It’s not that Sethi is a bad actor – far from it. He shows some real athleticism in his role, but the dialogue for him is a little one-note and Sethi doesn’t vary much in his line reading. Like some child actors, he comes off as a little too sure of himself and perhaps Mowgli’s wolf upbringing might explain this, but Mowgli comes off as almost arrogant to the point of Trumpness.

The voice actors all do wonderful work, particularly Murray and Kingsley, but Johansson, Nyong’o and Walken also distinguish themselves. Favreau is inventive in the way he uses tracking shots and flashbacks, and the movie is never visually boring.

The animated edition is where most of the cues for this movie arise, but there are also other elements from other movies, some surprising. There are nods to Apocalypse Now, for example, when King Louie reveals himself. The appearance of three songs from the original movie is all welcome and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Christopher Walken warbling “Wanna Be Like You.”

This is some of the best family entertainment you’re going to find in a year that’s shaping up to offer some truly interesting family films that this critic is eager to check out. That’s good news as there has been a bit of a dry spell when it’s come to high quality family entertainment. This one is going to make it into the video library for a lot of kids who will be demanding it from parents who won’t mind giving in. Definitely one of the best family films in years.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing animal effects look completely real. A classic honored with a terrific rendition. Nice little shout-outs to the animated version.
REASONS TO STAY: While Sethi is less annoying then he might have been, he was occasionally a bit overly smug for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence here as well as a child in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Disney version of The Jungle Book in which Bagheera and Shere Khan fight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tarzan
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Honeyglue