â€˜Mowgliâ€™ Review: Welcome to the Jungle (Book)
Actor-director Andy Serkis takes a harsher, darker, more CGI-heavy look at â€˜The Jungle Bookâ€™ â€” and pings between peaks and uncanny valleys
â€œThe jungle is eternal,â€ purrs a panther â€” theÂ second most charismatic black panther to hit screens in 2018, for those of you keeping count â€” to his â€œlittle brother,â€ a boy with limpid eyes and long back hair. This large, nurturing feline is referring to the home that provides them with renewable sustenance, shelter and the occasional slithering-reptile narrator. He might also be talking about Rudyard Kiplingâ€™s durable, endlessly adaptable 1894 collection of stories revolving around blessed beasts and children: the aforementioned big brother Bagheera, the boisterous bear Baloo, the cunning python Kaa and the deadly tiger Shere Khan. Oh, yeah, and the â€œman-cubâ€ â€” Mowgli, an Indian child raised by wolves and destined to be the bridge between folks who walk on two legs and his furrier friends who stalk, creep and amble along on four.
DubbedÂ The Jungle Book,Â Kiplingâ€™s anthology has come to represent most of whatâ€™s great about the British authorâ€™s boyâ€™s-adventure storytelling, as well as whatâ€™s not-so-great about his 19th-century worldview. And it, too, is an eternal fixture on the pop-culture landscape. One generation knew itÂ as a rousing Korda brothers colonialist-exotica epic; anotherÂ as a Disney cartoon with catchy tunes; another asÂ a Christmas-season blockbuster; and still anotherÂ as a live-action, A-list adaptation of the Mouse Ears Inc.â€™s animated classic. Motion-capture maestroÂ Andy Serkisâ€™s take on the material may have unwittingly become a victim of bad timing, bad luck, competing studios, cold feet, changing industry trends and make-money-moves deals. (Thereâ€™sÂ a hell of a backstory here.) But you can say this for the actor-turned-directorâ€™s serious, stone-cold sober interpretation of Mowgli & Coâ€™s rousing narrative: It is not your fatherâ€™sÂ Jungle Book.Â More like your great-grandfatherâ€™s.
Both kid-friendly and prepubescent-nightmare-inducing,Â MowgliÂ â€” laden with the unfortunate, no-favors-done subtitle â€œLegend of the Jungleâ€ â€” is an attempt to keep the source materialâ€™s more feral, animalistic instincts intact. It isnâ€™t one of those â€œdark revisionistâ€ redos that have been all the rage for the past decade (â€œI loveÂ Alice in Wonderland,Â but I sure wish it was more bleak and mall-Goth-y â€¦.â€Â â€œHere you go!â€). But the movie starts with Mowgliâ€™s mother and father being torn to shreds by a tiger, an event which is not seen but still presented as horrifically as possible, and it only gets more bloodthirsty from there. Thereâ€™s a kill-or-be-killed vibe throughout, even when the tween Mowgli (Rohan Chand) isnâ€™t being actively threatened by a chops-licking Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch). You never forget that the man-cub is a little boy lost in a world of creatures, and even the most protective of the bunch will fight tooth-and-claw if they have to. We donâ€™t mean figuratively, either.
Itâ€™s aÂ Jungle BookÂ reading that prizes predatory realism, in other words, albeit one presented with CGI bells and mo-cap whistles that run the gamut from impressive â€” bear necessities, indeed! â€” to â€œwas this directly lifted from a PlayStation 2 video game cut scene?â€ The celebrity voicework is equally bipolar.Â Christian Baleâ€™s panting, stentorian Bagheera (you assume the actor lived among panthers for months and grew a fine coatÂ of actual ebony furÂ in preparation for the part) and Andy Serkisâ€™s own Ursidae-raised-in-Londonâ€™s-East-End Baloo bring the soul as well as sound and fury; Cumberbatchâ€™s killer Khan, meanwhile, is all aural mustache-twirling Ã la his Smaug fromÂ The HobbitÂ and the idea ofÂ Cate BlanchettÂ hissing through Kaaâ€™s consonants is better in conception rather than execution.
Once Mowgli makes his way to the man village after an abduction-by-monkeys incident, a wounding and an exile, youâ€™re ready for some actual Homo sapien interactions. The movie gives the young hero a maternal figure in the form of Messua, a kindly woman played by Freida Pinto and reduced to a glorified cameo; we also get John Lockwood, an archetypal Great White Hunter who views the jungle as nothing but trophy-room fodder. Itâ€™s the exchanges between this representation of a for-sport predator, one whoÂ The Americansâ€˜Â Matthew RhysÂ manages to make both dignified and pathetic, and the boy that come off as the most interesting â€” a break from the mo-cap Serkis Maximus that make up the majority of the spectacle.
Listen: No one would dispute that the actor-turned-directorÂ has revolutionized the form, or that he understands the importance of performance whether heâ€™s portrayingÂ Planet of the Apesâ€˜ chimp equivalent of Che Guevara or calling the shots. (Serkisâ€™s 2017 directorial debutÂ Breathe,Â made in between production stop-starts for this project, may be upper-crust schmaltz, but itâ€™s also a primo actorâ€™s playground.) Itâ€™s simply that the effect becomes tiresome as time goes by with Kiplingâ€™s anthropomorphic menagerie, even with the best thespians on board. And as the entire third act slouches toward grudge matches and vengeance quests,Â MowgliÂ quits reaching for the peaks and simply settles into a familiar uncanny-valley groove. Thereâ€™s much to gasp and fawn over here, and too much forgettable filler. But at least audiences have a chance to see it, so Serkis and his collaborators can finally turn the page on this particular book.