“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Ian Malcom’s words have never rung so true as with director Andy Serkis’ latest film. Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, an adaption of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, arrived in 2018 with feigned enthusiasm. Mostly because, as recently as 2016, Disney released their own new take on The Jungle Book. Still, Serkis’ adaption was sold as a darker take, while representing the leaps CGI has taken. However, the film’s greatest feats often lead to Serkis’ undoing.
Mowgli (Rohan Chand), an orphaned Indian boy, is raised by wolves. Referred to as a “man cub,” he’s trained by a bear, Baloo (Andy Serkis), and a panther, Bagheera (Christian Bale), to become a wolf and remain in the pack. However, Mowgli is a human boy. Try as he might, even by running on all fours, he can’t keep up with other wolves. This inability puts Mowgli in peril because the tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) is out for his blood, even as his wolf “parents,” Nisha (Naomie Harris) and Akela, hope to protect him (Peter Mullan).
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle shouldn’t be confused with kid friendliness, from the death of Mowgli’s parents to Shere Khan’s thirst for blood, Serkis veers heavily into the jungle and man’s darkest quarters. In fact, over the course of the film Mowgli becomes bloodies up like he’s an action hero. In one instance, there’s a gruesome scene where Shere Khan plays with the unconscious boy’s body, leaving a garish scar.
Screenwriter Callie Kloves hampers the film with a tonally dissonant story. In this iteration, Kloves inserts a hunter named Lockwood (Matthew Rhys). Capable of feats of kindness and cruelty, the British Lockwood encapsulates man and Colonialism. While the shallow dive into Colonialism may be applauded, it comes at the expense of the Indian characters who are given as much depth as the tress surrounding the jungle, with Freida Pinto, in particular, given little to do.
These flights of darkness often run in sharp contrast with the film’s lighthearted moments. Chand discovers his best scenes when he’s free from Kloves and Serkis’ overbearing script. Unfortunately, just as quickly as these sanguine scenes arrive, another sequence will appear with the temptress snake Kaa (Cate Blanchett) prophesying the boy bringing balance between man and jungle like he’s Anikan Skywalker. The film’s sudden redirections make the most exuberant emotions tawdry and ill suited.
These moments of happy frolicking wouldn’t be as out of place, if the lighting weren’t so dark. Lighting matters with CGI. The more realistic the lighting, the better, especially when a film is dependent upon rendering leaves and fur (both are notoriously difficult). Rendering with dark lighting rather than over-exposed and unrealistic brightness helps. Compare the scorpion scene in Mowgli, shot in bright “sunlight,” with any night sequence in the film, the quality of the CGI is noticeable. So while Serkis may have veered into darker exposures to suit this grim story, the move was done for practical reasons as well. That practicality separates foreboding and joyous scenes further than they would be otherwise.
However, even these tricks of the trade don’t completely sink Serkis’ animals. Instead, much of the design does. The character Bhoot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a pup, visually looks like it wandered off another film set. The character’s exaggerated features, from its eyes, to its walk, and its smile, runs at odds with the film’s naturalistic renderings of other animals. Still, even the naturalistic creatures appear more fun house than real. There’s an odd sense while watching Mowgli that these animals are at once too real, yet not real enough. The suspension of disbelief never enters the mind, partly because of the voice acting. Every actor delivers their lines well, too well. They’re emoting more than the animation can keep up.
Serkis took his time with Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, that much is true, but his belief that he could push the bounds of this simple story obstructed his view of whether he should. Much like his CGI creations, the film can’t find the balance between the jungle’s reality and fantasy.