Skip to main content

One day you will speak and the jungle will listen.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle
(2018)

(SPOILERS) The unloved and neglected Jungle Book movie that wasn't Disney’s, Jungle Book: Origins was originally pegged for a 2016 release, before being pushed to last year, then this, and then offloaded by Warner Bros onto Netflix. During which time the title changed to Mowgli: Tales from the Jungle Book, then Mowgli, and finally Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. The assumption is usually that the loser out of vying projects – and going from competing with a near $1bn grossing box office titan to effectively straight-to-video is the definition of a loser – is by its nature inferior, but Andy Serkis' movie is a much more interesting, nuanced affair than the Disney flick, which tried to serve too many masters and floundered with a finale that saw Mowgli celebrated for scorching the jungle. And yes, it’s darker too. But not grimdarker.


Much of the conversation, when it hasn't related to the various release delays, or the reshoots (much of the ending was redone, and there was speculation as to whether Alfonso Cuaron's involvement was really a salvage operation on the scale of Tony Gilroy's for Rogue One), has focussed on the design aesthetic for the creatures. True, it's far from the photorealist naturalism of the Jon Favreau movie, the jungle inhabitants wearing clear traces of the performers playing/voicing them. However, while this was distracting in trailer form, where that's all you're able to take away, the choice quickly assimilates with the broader style in context. As a consequence, it's unfair to simply dismiss the results as cruder (although admittedly, some designs, such as Kaa, aren't as effectively realised as others).


More importantly, in terms of winning over the audience, almost all the characterisations and performances are more compelling than the Disney version (which isn't to say the rendering won't still be a deciding factor; the all-star cast doesn’t stand a hope of saving the abysmal visuals for the new BBC Watership Down). Rohan Chand is far and away the better Mowgli to Neel Sethi. You could tell Favreau was shooting around Sethi's limitations at times, but Chand delivers a full-blooded lead of dependable emotional range. 


Christian Bale's Bagheera – I'd like to hear how Bale's method approach went for this one – and particularly Benedict Cumberbatch's Shere Khan (who may be the king of the jungle, but he's a convincingly lame, battle damaged one) entirely won me over, the latter formidable in relaying the tiger's fearsomeness. I wasn't as persuaded by Serkis as Baloo (apparently, he took on the role after being unable to find the right actor), but the conflict between bear and panther over the latter ensuring Mowgli loses his bid to become a member of the wolf pack and thus keeps his promise to return to the man village is suitably rancorous. 


While Callie Kloves (her first screenplay credit) was free to ignore the 1967 Jungle Book template that at times negatively impinged on the Favreau film, she only goes so far in remaining faithful to the Rudyard Kipling stories. Perhaps the most notable area in which she remains true to Kipling, and thus breaks with what has now become "lore", is having Kaa as a benevolent character, here voiced by Cate Blanchett and seen as, effectively, the voice of wisdom in the jungle, foreseeing that Mowgli is needed for the realm it will become ("One day you will speak and the jungle will listen"). 


Indeed, some of the implicit messages here might be seen as on the suspect side – the subtitle is Legend of the Jungle, as if Mowgli is a Tarzan surrogate – since it concerns a human rising to – effectively – govern the animals, rather than co-exist among them, so importing the classic Hollywood device of destiny fulfilled. The threat of man, as exemplified by fire and the strict no-no of killing their cows, is emphasised throughout, but then sacrificed for something more dutiful and regimented, as Mowgli rides out of shot astride an elephant accompanied by Kaa's voiceover confirming his credentials ("Mowgli, man and wolf, both and neither, had given the jungle a voice and for as long as he stood watch over it, it would speak a lasting peace"). The text is such that Mowgli, with a foot between both worlds, is ideally placed to guide the lesser beasts through the (eco) challenges ahead (although, one might suggest Bagheera, with his history of captivity, has a similar pedigree); in the stories, the character yo-yos between village and jungle life, but he seems fairly rooted to the latter come the credits here.


It's in keeping that Mowgli's rise to "rule" is hard won; Serkis ensures that even where Mowgli is welcomed, the environment isn't simply a cosy one. His fellow wolf cubs call him a freak, and don't want him around. When he is first returned to his fellow humans, he is placed in a cage. While Freida Pinto's Messua is very nice to him, hunter John Lockwood (Matthew Rhys), who takes on something of the mentor role of Bagheera, is marked out as untrustworthy when it is revealed he killed Mowgli's albino cub friend and fellow freak Bhoot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis). Indeed, there's something despairingly reminiscent of The Plague Dogs about Bhoot’s life and unhappy fate, definitely a movie you should be think twice about trying to replicate tonally.


Other points of difference to the Disney telling include a more fleeting role for the monkeys and a much more significant one for the wolf pack. And, as noted above, there's the way Mowgli lives in the man village for a while before returning to the jungle to sort out Shere Khan. Structurally, this can't help but create issues the more streamlined Disney narratives avoided. It isn't so much that Mowgli feels episodic – that's in the nature of the original stories – but that it's more wayward than it probably should be, the sense of impending threat broken by the spell in the village. On the other hand, at least they actually went there; in the live action Disney version, the closest he gets is to steal a torch of man's red flower. 


I wasn’t really clear why the bull elephant would be persuaded to help Mowgli in return for his tusk, unless he has a bucket of superglue handy, but the climax is a suitably dramatic affair – I liked Mowgli's magnanimous "Sleep now, Shere Khan. Be angry no more" after knifing him – and in the passing of wolf pack leader Akela (Peter Mullan) quite moving. Indeed, of all the characters here, I found Akela the most affecting, going from staunch defender to banishing Mowgli for breaking the jungle code when he uses fire to save him (at least he didn't burn the entire place down) to final reconciliation ("It is your time now. Forgive me for doubting you, Mowgli"). Most of that can be put down to Mullan.


If Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle sounds like a grim-faced affair, it is rather, and that might be seen as its main flaw, particularly for material traditionally embraced as family friendly. Even Tom Hollander's more humorously toned hyena Tabaqui is a twisted, unpleasant creation, although he gets some of the best lines, ranging from the positively poetic (discussing fire, he notes "It's hotter than the sun, and it’s quicker than the panther") to the existentially defeatist ("Sometimes, I dream I'm a tiger. But I always wake up a hyena"). However, I'd argue there’s room for this gnarly iteration, and that it offers rewards the playing-it-safe Favreau picture simply lacks. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

Don’t you break into like, a billion homes a year?

The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
(SPOILERS) Tis the season to be schmaltzy. Except, perhaps not as insufferably so as you might think. The Christmas Chronicles feels very much like a John Hughes production, which is appropriate since it's produced by Chris Columbus, who was given his start as a director by Hughes. Think Uncle Buck, but instead of John Candy improving his nieces and nephew's lives, you've got Kurt Russell's Santa Claus bringing good cheer to the kids of the Pierce household. The latter are an indifferent duo, but they key here is Santa, and Russell brings the movie that all important irrepressible spark and then some.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

A steed is not praised for its might, but for its thoroughbred qualities.

The Avengers Season 3 Ranked - Worst to Best
Season Three is where The Avengers settles into its best-known form – okay, The Grandeur that was Rome aside, there’s nothing really pushing it towards the eccentric heights it would reach in the Rigg era – in no small part due to the permanent partnering of Honor Blackman with Patrick Macnee. It may not be as polished as the subsequent incarnations, but it has the appeal of actively exploring its boundaries, and probably edges out Season Five in the rankings, which rather started to believe its own hype.

You counselled him and then he shot himself.

First Reformed (2017)
(SPOILERS) This uneven at best Roman Catholic – I know, it concerns a protestant church, but who are we trying to kid? – eco-guilt picture from Paul Schrader that has been hailed as his best in years, which it probably is, but these things are relative. Schrader has made, for the first hour or so, an engrossing study of faith, doubt and despair, but his choices after that, particularly during the last half hour, undo much of the effort.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…