An evergreen tale with several adaptations under its belt, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is one of those stories that most everyone knows in one form or another. Most notably, Disney has not only an animated version, but also a recent live-action remake that tackled the tale of Mowgli and his adventures rather well. Which has led audiences following the progress of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle to ask just why this film should exist. After seeing said movie, the answer is pretty simple: it’s a new spin on an old story that ditches the more fantastical elements to deliver a darker, more grounded adventure of personal stakes.
After his parents are killed by the infamous Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), an infant boy is taken in by a pack of wolves. He will be raised among them, as well as Bagheera the panther (Christian Bale) and Baloo the bear (Andy Serkis), ultimately becoming one with the jungle. But as he grows into the young man that Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle centers itself around, Mowgli will be put to the test, ultimately having to decide between the world of the jungle, and that of humanity.
The biggest difference between this latest adaptation of Kipling’s literary classic and its forebearers is the fact that Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle plays as more of a mature character study, with action and suspense sprinkled in for good nature. While the Disney version of The Jungle Book had songs and a pretty storybook-friendly plot structure, Mowgli gets into the more personal workings of the story, with some lush set-pieces included to spice things up throughout.
A more personal approach to a story like Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle means that there’s more shots of our young lead, played effortlessly by Ronan Chand, and the various animal counterparts he occupies the jungles of India alongside. Here is where Mowgli really shines, as Serkis’s experience as a motion capture genius has led to a cast of amazing performances where the actors really shine through the CGI that animates their movements.
You can literally see the faces of the performers animated into the animals that inhabit Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, and Chand’s strong performance as Mowgli excels at selling those moments convincingly. With both Christian Bale’s most reserved performance as Bagheera, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s extreme but magnetic villainy as Shere Khan, there’s a good field of material for the film’s young lead to play around with, and Ronan Chand is most definitely up to the task.
The only real drawback in Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is that there’s a bit of a pacing problem with the story that’s being told. Towards the middle of the film, the tempo changes when Mowgli transitions from the world of the jungle to that of the human village. It almost feels like the shift comes a bit too fast, after a film so deliberately paced that it really allows those characters to breathe. But even in a truncated form, the story told in the human camp, through both Matthew Rhys’s hunter Lockwood and Freida Pinto’s maternal figure Messua, works well in the framework it inhabits. It just feels like it could have worked so much better if given a little more time to unfold.
But the fact that Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is playing with a well-known story in such a confident manner as this is a promising beginning. With plenty more material left to be adapted from both of Kipling’s Jungle Book tomes, there’s room for Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle to blossom into a franchise. The film certainly isn’t shy about that fact, but at the same time, it tells a narrative singular enough in its vision that it’s not terribly cocky about its chances of returning.
It should also be noted that this is a more stoic version of the Mowgli mythos, and it’s certainly a more horrific one. With Shere Khan literally thirsty for the young man-cub’s blood, and a couple of sequences that drive home the horrors committed by both man and beast, it is most definitely not a movie you can just park the kids in front of for a fun afternoon. With the right adult supervision, an older child audience can handle slightly more grown-up story telling, making Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is an absolute treat.
After seeing what Andy Serkis’s directorial vision has accomplished with the cast and content of this film, it’d be an absolute shame not to revisit this world once again. Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a blockbuster in every sense of the word, and it’s an absolute marvel in both technical and storytelling prowess.