One has to wonder if director and motion capture extraordinaire Andy Serkis started screaming into a pillow upon seeing Jon Favreau’s superb re-imaging of The Jungle Book in 2016. Not only did those visual effects rival anything in the Planet of the Apes series but they also shine a special spotlight on the horror show that he was creating at the same time. In this re-imagining of the story inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s significantly darker source material, Serkis invites us into a world that gives us one of the most tear dripping CG-eyesores ever to come out of a big budget film. It’s a jungle so staggeringly ugly and un-convincing that it buries any semblance of pathos Serkis attempts to wring out of a story we’ve heard a million times, even if there are occasional glimmers of potential peaking out through the bushes.
The most clear holder of that potential is Mowgli himself, portrayed by instant movie star Rohan Chand. His take on the man cub torn between two worlds is complex, mature and raw. We feel his desperation to be seen as one of the wolf pack, and his inner conflict when he starts to stray from that path. He’s also surprisingly convincing in the action sequences, with animalistic movements and screams that feel genuinely primal and frightening. The film’s best portion hinges entirely on him, as he spends a bit of time in a human village and starts to fall in love with being among his own kind. It’s the only portion of the story that feels like it adds something to what we’ve seen before, and Chand carries it to perfection. It’s an excellent performance that in a better movie could’ve pushed him into stardom.
Serkis’ darker take on the material drowns every moment in a crushing wave of self seriousness. The aesthetic switches between bleak sunsets and crushing darkness, only occasionally giving us an opportunity to take in the wonder of this amazing jungle. It is in these few brighter moments where Serkis shines as a director, with his sweeping cinematography in the non CG locations giving us a glimpse into the grander film he was clearly trying to make. In a story that is so clearly campy, there are hardly any moments of intentional levity. It’s a nihilistic, somber, and violent affair that is rarely engaging enough to justify that tone. In fact, most of the story beats and dialogue are so derivative that one may be able to say the dialogue back to the characters as they do, with more convincing lip movements I might add.
I cannot imagine the level of skill, time, and talent it takes to create even the most bare bones CGI characters, let alone ones of this magnitude. I respect their work, and odds are that a troubled production probably threw it through the meat grinder a thousand times over. However, when your blockbuster movie relies on animated characters to sell the majority of its emotional beats, action sequences, and moment to moment interactions, it has to be better than this. Everything from their clunky movements to their bizarrely humanlike faces sends us deeper and deeper into the uncanny valley.
This creates a barrier that crushes the performances of a group of A-List actors who throw their all into the voice work with mixed results. Serkis fares best as a more temperamental and militant Baloo, who takes it upon himself to train the cubs for the dangers of the jungle. Christian Bale empathetically sells Bagheera’s love for Mowgli and the manner in which the tragedy of his own life feeds into that, and Cate Blanchett is a seductive delight as Kaa. Unfortunately, Benedict Cumberbatch is an utter bore as Shere Khan, playing both his second snarling CGI monster and antagonist named Khan. It’s a performance completely derivative of those previous roles, and the character is so thinly written that he never breaks out of his one note looming menace mode. It pales in comparison to Idris Elba’s fantastic turn in Favreau’s version.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a frustrating failure built on an ambitious filmmaker with both a lack of support from a studio who clearly wanted to wash their hands of his work, and a misguided tonal sensibility that clashes with his material and makes it silly when it intends to be serious. There are moments of beauty and intensity here, but they get lost in a ponderous and hideous tapestry of diminishing returns. Perhaps it’s time to close The Jungle Book.