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Mowgli review - a grittier Jungle Book that misses the mark

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Verdict: Hot on the heels of Disney’s live action remake from 2016, this grittier adaptation of The Jungle Book is somewhat of a disappointment. 

Andy Serkis, king of motion capture, somehow misses the mark with this one. The animals are more cartoonish than in 2016’s Jungle Book, which prized realism. Though Mowgli still goes for the ‘live-action’ CGI look, the over-emphasised features of the animals are weirdly human looking, and kind of jarring.

It’s a shame that the effect doesn’t quite work, since this film has been 5 years in the making, with countless people working very hard on it.

Newcomer Rohan Chand plays the titular Mowgli, torn between life as a wolf and a human. Again it’s a shame that comparisons with the previous version are the only way to process this film, because though he delivers an admirable performance, it’s not quite as moving as Neel Sethi’s.

This is partly due to the tone of the film — overall a darker take on the story, with some choices made that seem more for the sake of differentiating itself than making a good film. This Mowgli suffers a lot of physical harm, as well as doling out his fair share of violence. Maulings and stabbings, beatings and shootings are all part of this edged-up kids story. It’s got a bad case of the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina syndrome, which really isn’t a compliment.

Rudyard Kipling’s source material is fundamentally racist in its colonialist allegories, and the expansion of Mowgli’s time in the man-village had my Spidey-senses tingling immediately. How would this film tackle the relationship between humans and animals? Between Mowgli and the rest of his kind? Well, with the help of the White Man of course! 

The introduction of a completely out of the blue white man living in the village drives home that this film, though it’s trying really hard, has actually missed the woke mark by a mile. Treated like an animal by the Indians, it’s the white man who treats Mowgli with kindness, and teaches him the ways of man. In that way, this film is perfectly in the spirit of Kipling, taking up the white man’s burden that the rest of us would really rather not see on screen.

Numerous changes to the functions of animals throughout the story show that Mowgli kind of ultimately misses the point. Each encounter with an animal in the stories are parables that teach some sort of lesson — greed and respect, fear and bravery, fitting in and standing out: themselves perfectly valid in their literary and moral merit. In an attempt to recontextualise these tales to suit modern sensibilities, this film loses its heart and instead becomes a soulless exercise in tropes.

Christian Bale, Andy Serkis, and Naomie Harris do a great job voicing Bagheera, Baloo, and Mowgli’s wolf mother Nisha, but Benedict Cumberbatch’s Shere Khan, while certainly very aggressive, doesn’t have half the menacing presence of Idris Elba’s version. 

Without the comparison to its predecessor, this film still wouldn’t have achieved what it was aiming for. I can see why it got dropped from its distribution deal and ended up straight on Netflix.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is available to stream on Netflix from December 7th.

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