Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle Review

AKA: Mowgli
Genre: Action/Adventure/Coming of Age
Year Released: 2018
Distributor: Netflix/Warner Bros.
Origin: England/USA/India
Running Time: 104 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG-13
Related Films/Series: Elephant Boy, Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, The Jungle Book, Adventures of Mowgli, Mowgli’s Brothers, Jungle Book Shonen Mowgli, TaleSpin, The Jungle Book (1994 Disney live action remake), Jungle Cubs, The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli & Baloo, The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story, Mowgli: The New Adventures of The Jungle Book, The Jungle Book 2, The Jungle Book (2010 Indian CGI series), The Jungle Book (2016 Disney live action remake)
For Fans Of: The Jungle Book (2016 remake), Tarzan, FernGully, Zimbo, Jumanji
Notes: N/A
Fun Facts:
-The Jungle Book was written by India-born British author Rudyard Kipling. The first book was written in 1894 and there were two other sequels with The Second Jungle Book and All the Mowgli Stories.

-Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle may have taken place in India, but it was actually filmed in South Africa as well as two different parts of England with London and Leavesden, Hertfordshire respectively. The latter location in England is interesting because it was filmed at the same Warner Bros.-affiliated studio that the Harry Potter movies were made.

-This is the 2nd movie directed by British actor Andy Serkis. Him and his son Louis also acted in this film with them playing Baloo and Bhoot respectively. Andy Serkis is actually one of the highest-grossing actors and has played several characters in his career. Some of those roles include Supreme Leader Snoke in the newer Star Wars movies, Ulysses Klaue in the MCU (Avengers: Age of Ultron and Black Panther), Caesar in the Planet of the Apes reboots, but everyone should know his voice work as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies. Outside of his acting career, he has directed Breathe and will direct Venom: Let There Be Carnage.

-Hilarious in Hindsight: Speaking of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, I realized that Gollum is Baloo, Smaug is Shere Khan, and Galadriel is Kaa!

-Mowgli was originally going to be theatrically released in 2016 directly with Warner Bros, but a certain impediment prevented them for releasing this adaptation that same year cough Disney’s 2nd live action Jungle Book remake! cough and got delayed 2 years later for it to be shipped to Netflix instead.

-Language Bonus: Most of the animal characters are named after their species in Hindi with Bagheera literally meaning “panther”, Shere Khan meaning “tiger chief” or “tiger king” (insert Joey Exotic joke here), or Baloo being an anglicized spelling of Bhalu meaning “bear” for example.

-Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle actually made it’s debut not on Netflix, but with a screening in Mumbai, India. This was also the first time a Hollywood project debuted in India in film history. It does make some sense since the movie much less The Jungle Book franchise does take place in that nation, so good on them, I guess. This is also coincidentally actress Freida Pinto’s (Messua) hometown, so there is a connection between Mumbai and someone who was in this movie.

Here’s my third entry for my Alternate Disney August project. The next example comes from The Jungle Book for this week. Even though I wouldn’t say I was a big fan of that series, I was actually surprised with how many iterations I’ve seen of Rudyard Kipling’s work in my life. There’s the original Disney version (obviously), the 1994 live action version that barely anyone remembers, TaleSpin, a few episodes of Jungle Cubs, the very short-lived Mowgli: The New Adventures of The Jungle Book series that was on Fox Kids of all places, and the 2016 live action remake which was also the last Disney movie I saw in a theater even though I was dragged into watching it (long story). Life is certainly strange like that as there are so many versions of this story much like Beauty and the Beast or Pinocchio to name a few. This example might technically be my second entry into reviewing anything related to The Jungle Book if anyone counts the public domain cameos of Mowgli and Baloo in Eleanor’s Secret (I don’t count it given how brief their appearances were). I’ve heard of this live action version being in production a few years ago and hearing that Benedict Cumberbatch would voice Shere Khan of all things, so I was mildly intrigued. However, finding out about Rudyard Kipling being a racist and colonizing cheerleader, my opinion on the original story certainly soured (Kipling also invented and extolled the term “White Man’s Burden”, just saying). It does fit this concept and I had some hopes of it revising the story for modern audiences.

How will Andy Serkis’s take on The Jungle Book fare? Will it be forever compared to the 2016 remake from Disney?

For those who have never seen or read anything related to The Jungle Book, here’s the lowdown. Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle takes place in colonial British India. In this jungle part of India, a sadistic tiger named Shere Khan slaughters a local family that leaves behind an orphaned boy. This boy would be the title character who is found by the panther Bagheera who becomes his guardian and adopted extended family to a wolf pack. The wolves are very reluctant to having the “man-cub” around given how his existence would make the wolves a target for Shere Khan, so Bagheera brings a deer corpse as tribute to protect the boy’s life as well as coaxing the Himalayan brown bear Baloo into teaching Mowgli as he gets older. Time passes and Mowgli is accepted into the pack while thinking of himself as a wolf instead of a human. Unfortunately, the community is under threat from the tiger again as he’s killing cattle in the jungle as well as the nearby “man village” which is anathema to the law of the jungle as well as him being nearby. Things escalate in the jungle to where Mowgli has to go to the man village and doesn’t feel like he belongs let alone having an existential crisis in finding out that he is human and not a wolf. He lives with the local Indians as well as a British colonizer hunter named John Lockwood who’s after Shere Khan. How will Mowgli adjust in this new environment and does the jungle still need him even when danger arises?

Let’s start with the obvious with Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, this movie is NOTHING like the Disney versions that people know. Don’t expect wacky animal hijinks or god forbid, animals breaking out into songs. Okay, there’s a couple of musical moments with the humans, but they are very brief and wouldn’t qualify under movie musical status. Most of the characters don’t even act like the Disney adaptations. Expecting Baloo to be some jolly bear chilling out while eating prickly pears or dancing? Not here. He’s a strict teacher who’s not afraid to smack some sense into the wolves and he even talks in a rough Cockney accent in this version. Expecting Kaa to be some comedic, yet ravenous villain with some creepy undertones? Nope! She doesn’t play up any pedophile vibes, is way more serious and she’s much closer to being an anti-hero than a villain. This movie is also way darker than any other adaptations I’ve seen. The fights get bloody, characters die (sometimes onscreen), and the movie would be too scary for the elementary school crowd. I wasn’t used to a PG-13 Jungle Book story, but this was an experience in and of itself. There were some things that I did enjoy about this version of the film. I liked the human exposure during a good portion of the film and some of the subtle writing in it. Mowgli doesn’t say a word to any of the humans and acts like an animal around them at first which makes perfect sense since he’s a feral child and was raised by all the different animals in the jungle. The Indians in the man village all speak Hindi while Lockwood speaks English most of the time with some Hindi in conversations with the locals. It really feels like a disconnect with the animal and human worlds where even though the animal dialogue is technically in “English”, it feels like a translation instead of just anyone being able to talk freely to any living thing. The John Lockwood character might be a low-key critique on Rudyard Kipling’s pro-colonial mindset as it’s revealed that he’s another villain as he kills off innocent animals for sport which makes him no better than Shere Khan which Mowgli tragically realizes in the final act of the film. That was great writing over there as a way to stick it to the original author. The aspect of killing cows being a taboo thing in the law of the jungle is also brilliant given how sacred cattle are in the Hindu religion which is still the most prominent faith in India to this day. At least there was some effort in cultural accuracy unlike other versions of this story. I was also intrigued by this take on Bagheera. He’s more understated when it comes to being strict compared to this version of Baloo (think about that for a second), has his own selfish desires to make sure Mowgli is safe, and he even gets his own backstory that’s surprisingly relatable. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but he actually has a connection to humans in his younger years while trying to fight back, but dealt with his own psychological battle fatigue before finally making it to the jungle which is sad. Anyone who’s been bullied to the point of being silenced will definitely see where Bagheera is coming from in an abstract way and why he acted the way he did around Mowgli which gives him a tragic edge. Shoot, I’m not even a Christian Bale fan, but I really liked his delivery as that panther character (not just because he prevents his Welsh accent from slipping as he’s done in several other roles). He really sells the seriousness as well as the internalized sorrow of this iteration and I almost forgot at times that it was Bale himself playing the character, so major props to his delivery. The voice acting in general was pretty good more often than not, but that was a highlight.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle isn’t something that should forget it’s worries or strife (Come on! You think I wasn’t going to make my mandatory Disney music reference?). The CGI is a bit mediocre. I felt like I was watching computer cartoons instead of something photorealistic and there were moments of obvious green screen effects like when Mowgli’s family tries to flee Shere Khan in the beginning of the movie. As much as I found Jon Favreau’s version of The Jungle Book to be massively overrated, at least I can say the CGI was better in his movie than this one. The man village scenes look fine, but some of the jungle scenes with the animals interacting did get to uncanny valley levels at times. I get them trying to go for accuracy for the source material while still subverting Kipling’s racist/colonialist tendencies, there was one error that I noticed in my research that made this version suffers from a great lack of originality and it was Tabaqui. He’s Shere Khan’s cowardly comic relief lackey in the original books who is a golden jackal, but in this movie, Tabaqui is a hyena. Not only is it so cliche using that animal as a villain, but the fact that he’s a henchman for an evil feline who takes over the animal’s community is just lazy. I can name two other examples of hyenas working for malevolent big cats since I’ve reviewed a very certain 60s anime involving that partnership happening and I reviewed an environmental documentary involving someone who’s most famous role involved voicing a shameless ripoff of the former who has hyena henchmen (in Tabaqui’s defense, at least he doesn’t talk in a racially-coded way). Speaking of the latter example…Am I the only person who thinks that Benedict Cumberbatch was trying to sound like a younger Jeremy Irons when playing Shere Khan especially when he talks in his lower register? Seriously, he talks in a gravely British baritone while being over-dramatic in his inflections and there were times where I jokingly thought Cumberbatch was somehow possessed by his compatriot when making this movie. In this film’s defense, this iteration of that tiger villain is definitely more threatening than any of the Disney versions (sorry, Idris Elba fans), but I don’t want him to sound like Mickey Mouse’s British-accented clone of Osamu Tezuka’s lion antagonist. While the voice acting was very good, there were some dialogue moments where I cringed like the wolves talking about “our people” in regards to their community. You aren’t people. You’re wolves. Couldn’t those characters say “our wolves”, “our pack”, or “our community” instead? Those would’ve been acceptable examples. Another one was during the final confrontation where Mowgli goes back to the jungle while yelling “KHAAAAAAN!” multiple times to get the tiger’s attention. Try not to make any Star Trek jokes when that part of the movie happens. Try REALLY freaking hard not to make any Star Trek jokes when that happens. I thought the music was typical Hollywood stuff with bombastic orchestras and the occasional usage of Indian instrumentation, but they never really stood out to me.

While the vitriol from some reviews of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle was mainly because of it NOT being the 2016 Jungle Book remake, I will say that it’s an okay take on the story not that I thought the other version was anything special besides the production. Is this better than the original Disney version? I would argue yes even though I wasn’t a huge fan of that movie franchise or other iterations. The darker nature of this film certainly worked and didn’t feel like pandering to older audiences like a ton of Disney remakes have been doing for years now (Case in point: Christopher Robin getting a PG rating while the Mulan remake is PG-13). There are good divergences from other versions of the story by using Lockwood as a critique of colonialism, having more Indian human representation in the man village scenes, and omitting the racist stuff in previous versions (no King Louie for starters!). There were even improvements to characters like Kaa and especially Bagheera with his progression as a protagonist. However, there were some dialogue issues, mediocre CGI/green screen effects, and some changes that made the movie look like it’s emulating a certain ripoff Disney movie with Cumberbatch sounding like that OTHER feline villain in his delivery or even the ending shot of Mowgli and the animals looking like a certain jutting rock transplanted in India. Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle wasn’t a boring watch, but it will unfairly be forever be contrasted with Favreau’s Jungle Book remake (not that I thought his movie was all that great to begin with) as well as being hindered by some production choices. There was potential. Some of it was realized and some parts were squandered.

Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1-2 points if you like serious takes on older stories.
-Add 1 point if you’re a fan of Andy Serkis’s motion capture or directorial work.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you don’t like blood and gore in adaptations of children’s stories.
-Subtract 2-3 points if you’re a fan of the original Disney animated Jungle Book and/or the 2016 live action remake.

Pros:
-Averts racist and colonialism implications of the original and previous adaptations
-Darker story doesn’t feel like pandering or lip service
-Bagheera’s characterization and development

Cons:
-CGI could’ve been improved
-Some mediocre dialogue elements
-Benedict Cumberbatch trying too much to sound like a certain Jeremy Irons character in this movie and Tabaqui as a hyena instead of a jackal REALLY doesn’t do him any favors

Final Score: 6/10 points

Content Advisory: That PG-13 rating is accurate. While there’s no swearing, sexuality, or nudity, the violence is way more intense than even the 2016 Jungle Book remake. Animals and humans alike get bloody and there’s a surprising number of onscreen deaths like Shere Khan killing the humans or even Bagheera hunting down some deer. Shere Khan and Kaa at one point threaten to eat Mowgli and the former is really close in doing so before Baloo and Bagheera show up. John Lockwood has a taxidermy collection of animals in jars, stuffed bodies, and even a severed preserved head of an adolescent animal (spoilers minimized) which severely disturbs Mowgli to the point of weeping. There’s even a social commentary on colonialism that is very subtle that children wouldn’t get anyway.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is property of Netflix and Warner Bros. The poster is from Blu-Ray and is property of Netflix and Warner Bros.

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