This film has been in production for a number of years now. In fact at one stage it looked as if it would be coming out around the same time as Disney’s ‘live action’ remake of their classic Jungle Book cartoon. There was even some discussion of their being a race to be the first in cinemas. Well Disney one that race by two and a half years but actually the distance between these two movies has served this version well. The new Disney movie was really well received and different as the tone of this film is there are inevitably a lot of similarities in the story. People may not have been in a hurry to return to Kipling’s jungle.
As it happens I was mixed on the Disney film, mostly because it replayed so much of the animated 1967 movie with only a fraction of the charm. I kind of felt the same as I did about Beauty & the Beast; it was entertaining but unnecessary. Mowgli, not being slave to the same audience expectations (wanna hear that song I like, wanna be reminded of that film I love) is able to go more its own way and it is the better film.
There are a few aspects of the movie that it took me a while to get used to though. This movie directed by Andy Serkis, the king of motion capture performances, and he has gathered together an impressive cast. Unfortunately this very thing that ought to work in its favour proved distracting for two reasons. First off there are some voices that are so distinctive; Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Mullan, Serkis himself, that seeing those familiar intonations coming out of the mouths of a snake, a tiger, a wolf and a bear respectively brought me out of the action. Then there are other voices that I knew but couldn’t quite place that proved equally diverting as I tried to work out who they were. (As it turns out they were Naomie Harris, Eddie Marsan, Jack Reynor and Tom Hollander.) Also, Serkis and his digital artists have aimed to give the animals some of the physical features of the actors playing them. This is most successful with Cumberbatch as Shere Khan and Christian Bale as Bagheera but it does look a little odd. They certainly have human eyes and to be honest, it’s a little freaky.
This isn’t to say the performances aren’t good across the board though. Rohan Chand is particularly strong in the title role, decidedly better than the kid in the Disney one. There are also some really well composed shots and scenes that add fresh perspectives to the familiar story. There is one sequence where Mowgli is under the surface of a pond as Shere Khan comes to drink from it and you don’t know if he’s been seen or if he will be able to hold his breath long enough to stay hidden. This is just one of a number of dramatic moments that hold and surprise the audience. The movie doesn’t hold back on the dangers of the jungle either. This is a 12A in the UK and but it earns that certificate without losing much of its all ages appeal. The point at which Mowgli realises what humans do to animals for sport is a particular gut punch but I’d say the film is fine for over eights.
In the end this film offers treats if you know the book or not and it has been worth the wait. I particularly enjoyed it when the hero approaches his enemy shouting ‘Khan’ but you might have to be a Star Trek fan to get the same out of that. Serkis is showing real skill with only his second feature (it was supposed to be his first), the film makes this old narrative fresh, it is totally respectful of its Indian setting (there is an alternate version playing in Asia with a cast of famous Bollywood names) and the special effects are superb (of course they are).
Mowgli is in a handful of cinemas but also on Netflix where it’s been given the extended and more corny title Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. You could certainly do much worse with an hour and forty five minutes of you time so if you want a family movie this Christmas that isn’t actually all about Christmas then this is a recommendation.