Andy Serkis, known best for his highly acclaimed motion-capture work on the Lord of Rings and Planet of the Apes series’ takes a spot in the director’s seat for his own live-action adaptation of the Jungle Book story
Stripping itself of The Jungle Book name, Mowgli follows the titular character (Rohan Chand) as he attempts to survive in the jungle following his parents’ death at the hands of vicious Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch). As he grows he is trained by Bagheera (Christian Bale), an intelligent and wise panther, and Baloo (Serkis), a goofy yet caring bear, in order to become a member of the wolf pack led by the ageing Akela (Peter Mullan). However, with Mowgli struggling to keep up with the wolves and Shere Khan closing in on him, he must decide whether it’s better for him to belong in the jungle or amongst the other people in the village below.
Frankly, adapting a story already so well-known through both live-action and animated versions puts Serkis’ at a distinct disadvantage. It’s tough to go into Mowgli without set expectations, especially considering that Mowgli’s story mostly follows the same one that audiences have seen time and time again. However, after seeing it, I’m confident in saying that not only is it a solid, fresh take on the well-known classic, but it might even be my favourite adaptation. This isn’t to say it is without flaws – there are some noticeable visual effects mistakes where Mowgli will have a scar in one shot only for it to disappear in the next, and his character generally lacks an emotional connection to the audience. However, this doesn’t mean that Chand does a poor job conveying the titular character, his four-legged movements to emulate a wolf is a great aspect of a difficult performance. The issue could be that seeing this character repeatedly born anew every other year could be getting a little old, and this particular iteration of the character doesn’t bring much new to the table.
Where Serkis does make an impact is the way his world of the jungle is built and how it not only affects the characters we already know, but also brings in new elements to the story. The laws of the jungle are much more important in this version and accordingly, deliver some interesting moments in the story – Bagheera tells Mowgli to look into the eyes of the prey he kills, so that their souls don’t travel alone, and Baloo teaches Mowgli to recite and understand the laws of the jungle, where we find the stakes are a little higher.
The voice acting is superb and each actor successfully slips into their roles so well that they’re mostly difficult to recognise right away. This is except for Serkis, unsurprisingly, but he’s still able to make Baloo the lovable, rough around the edges bear. Bale and Cumberbatch are definitely the standouts as complete polar opposites. Bale touches on Bagheera’s more reserved and caring relationship with Mowgli, particularly when opening up about his experiences with people at the village. While Cumberbatch delivers a deliciously evil performance as Shere Khan that people will shudder at the sight of him dragging his paw.
The story has some updates and tweaks that make it a little fresher. There’s more time spent at the village, with both the villagers and a hunter set on killing Shere Khan. Baloo and Bagheera are now actually part of the wolf clan rather than just creatures Mowgli runs into from time to time. Above all, this version is a little more mature, as Mowgli gets nasty cuts and bruises, blood flows throughout the film, and it touches on the brutality of the jungle with a more adult tone. Serkis’ version is without music and that’s honestly a great thing. It wouldn’t really fit well in his more realistic jungle environment, so the decision to take it out isn’t a bad one.