Film Review: ‘Mowgli’: Too Dark for the Littles

By Mark Jackson, Epoch Times
December 6, 2018 Updated: December 6, 2018

PG-13 | 1h 44min | Adventure, Drama | 7 December 2018 (USA)

Feral man-cubs. Tarzan was raised by gorillas, Pecos Bill by coyotes, and Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli was raised by wolves. What is this enduring archetype, and why does it keep circling back? What’s it got to teach us, and can Andy Serkis’s new version of Rudyard Kipling’s venerable “The Jungle Book” enlighten us to anything new?

Mowgli observes the landscape
Mowgli, the feral Indian child, in Andy Serkis’s “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.” (Netflix/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

The most powerful undercurrent in Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” is the law of the jungle. There are things that animals should and should not do. There is Shere Khan, the outlaw tiger, lawbreaker, by way of eating humans. Then, Mowgli, chasing Shere Khan away from his wolf “family,” uses fire to do so, and in so doing, shames the pack, for he has thereby broken a law of the jungle: Animals shall not use the man-tool fire.

I submit that these kids-raised-by-animals stories are all metaphors for spiritual enlightenment—of returning to one’s true self, and discarding the animal aspects of our human nature. And, at least in Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” a reminder that laws exist on all levels, in all dimensions, and in all facets of life—to guide sentient beings.

But this is not a philosophical or ethical treatise, or psycho-evolutionary theory, or whatever; this is a movie review, and as such, I don’t have to bring any rigorous logic up in here. I’m just saying I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going on with this feral-kid stuff. Just gonna blithely toss that out there. I could get serious, mind you, if I wanted to, but I don’t have to, so I’m not gonna.

Gollum as Director

I loved the 1967 Disney “The Jungle Book.” I was 7. It was magical. However, Rudolf Steiner, clairvoyant, scientist, philosopher, and founder of Waldorf education and biodynamic agriculture, said words to the effect that Walt Disney could look forward to having to pay a lot of karma for portraying animals as cartoon goofballs.

So maybe what British director Andy Serkis (most famous for the voice and motion-capture antics of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” character Gollum) accomplishes with this gritty, dark, scary take on Kipling’s allegorical novel is not sugarcoating the fact that the law of (and the life in) the jungle is essentially Hobbesian: namely nasty, brutish, and short.

The Story

In “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle,” tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), as mentioned, broke jungle law by killing Mowgli’s parents, leaving Mowgli orphaned. Mowgli is then rescued by the black panther Bagheera (Christian Bale), and raised by she-wolf Nisha (Naomie Harris).

Mowgli (Rohan Chand) grows up sort of bi-species (bi-specie-l? Bi-special?) and eternally confused as to whether he’s a man cub or a wolf cub. He’s got three mentor-babysitters: Bagheera; the jungle black bear Baloo (Andy Serkis himself, doing a sort of Guy Ritchie-type cockney bear); and alpha-wolf pack leader Akela (Peter Mullan).

They’re training and preparing him for his boyhood-to-wolfhood rite of passage: the Running of the Wolves. This is problematic, because humans can’t run as fast as wolves. So they coach him on taking monkey-like shortcuts, via death-defying leaps through the jungle.

Mancub running with wolfcubs
Mowgli getting ready to run with the wolf pack, in Andy Serkis’s “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.” (Netflix/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.)

But Shere Khan, who (little-known fact) has a crippled leg and therefore feasts on humans when he can, not having the usual tiger prowess to take down healthy woodland fauna, decides Mowgli is a good next meal.

Angry tiger in the rain
Benedict Cumberbatch is Shere Kahn in “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.” (Netflix/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

I feel the need to clarify this point, because Cumberbatch (and also Disney’s 2016 “The Jungle Book”) portray Shere Khan as pure evil. This is not the case. Shere Khan is not Smaug the dragon (also voiced by Cumberbatch). Khan’s just getting by the best he can. But for him to fulfill the role of allegorical lawbreaker, it helps to assign great evil to him.

Anyway, since Shere Kahn threatens everybody when he’s on the warpath, all the animals vote for Mowgli’s going away and acting like a human instead of an animal—drawing fire, so to speak. And so he goes and ends up in a cage, needs taming, and eventually acclimatizes with the care of Messua, a beautiful Indian woman (Freida Pinto) and a British big-game hunter (Matthew Rhys).

(L-R) Rohan Chand and Freida Pinto greet
Rohan Chand (L) and Freida Pinto in “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.” (Netflix/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

The Animation

I had high expectations, what with Serkis being the king of motion capture and animation, but that whole Gollum business was actually more about Peter Jackson’s brilliant direction of the giant pack of formidable talent at Weta Workshop.

So what Serkis comes up with here amounts to the animals being, on the one hand, extremely expressive. Let me explain that before I get to the other hand: These aren’t just voiceover performances by actors, but also facial motion captures that slightly freakishly end up showing us Christian Bale’s panther twin, who was born with him from the womb. Same for Baloo. He’s a circus bear. I mean a Serkis bear. And while that’s an interesting exercise in what motion capture can accomplish, it doesn’t really add anything to the movie other than the freak-show aspect.

Baloo gives a thoughtful look
Andy Serkis plays Baloo the bear in “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.” (Netflix/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

On the other hand, what’s fairly dreadful is the level of CGI. It reminds one more than a little of the stop-motion animal cartooning in the Wes Anderson movie “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Which is fine if that’s what you go in there expecting. But because it’s Serkis, you expect something different.

Conversely, Cate Blanchett’s gigantic python Kaa looks like no snake I’ve ever seen, doesn’t look like her either, and because she’s the film’s narrator, the effect comes off a bit as a besmirching caricature of her fine work as Galadriel, the narrator in “The Lord of the Rings.”

That said, the triple-canopy jungle setting works, and young Chand does an admirable job of generating emotions when he, most likely, had only a green screen to interact with. He’s got a good, central-casting Mowgli look.

Mowgli in the woods
Mowgli in his jungle habitat, in Andy Serkis’s “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.” (Netflix/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.)

While Serkis does manage to do justice to Kipling’s powerful, serious themes without preaching, I’m not sure that some of the more bone-chilling imagery is good for children, such as Mowgli as a baby, sitting by himself in the forest, covered in blood, while Shere Khan kills his parents. But then, I’m just endlessly appalled at what kids have been exposed to, movie-wise, since the early 1970s.

Bull elephant stands in jungle
Elephant bull in “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.” (Netflix/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

‘Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle’
Director: Andy Serkis
Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rohan Chand, Andy Serkis, Tom Hollander, Peter Mullan, Naomie Harris, Matthew Rhys
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 7
Rated 2.5 stars out of 5