Andy Serkis has given life to many unreal and unnatural characters over the course of his career. But the man behind the motion-captured face of Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” series and Caesar in various “Planet of the Apes” films may have finally met his technical match. In “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle,” his adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s beloved story collection “The Jungle Book,” director and co-star Serkis throws in too many new elements and, in the process, derails the plot’s familiarity and some of its charms.
As in many other versions of Kipling’s tale, Mowgli (Rohan Chand, “Bad Words”) is an orphaned boy (or “man-cub,” as the animals call him), adopted and raised by a pack of wolves in an Indian jungle. As he grows up, Mowgli is trained by cockney-accented bear Baloo (voiced by Serkis) and pragmatic panther Bagheera (Christian Bale) to fit in among the wolves and to learn to survive.
Mowgli has the odds stacked against him: He’s incapable of running as fast as the wolves (even on all fours), making him more likely to become a meal for Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), the fearsome tiger who killed his parents. Through too much exposition, Mowgli is forced to reckon, more than in previous adaptations, with the human village at the edge of the jungle, including a British game hunter named John Lockwood (Matthew Rhys) who’s looking to kill Shere Khan. Python Kaa (a sultry-voiced Cate Blanchett) leads the audience in and out of the story through prophetic declarations about the jungle, balance, and how the man-cub factors into this circle of life.
The perception that “Mowgli,” like the other cinematic “Jungle Book” adaptations, will also be family-friendly does not hold out for long. There are blood and violence aplenty in this version, including a hunting scene where Bagheera teaches Mowgli to look his prey in the eye so it will not die alone. That’s heavy stuff for a kid’s movie, and we haven’t even gotten to the club-claw version of Shere Khan, who looks as if he’s dripping in his victims’ blood in almost every scene. It’s perhaps a too on-the-nose cue to the tiger’s insatiable appetite.
This jungle can be a dark and scary place in some moments, isolating Mowgli with its scope and alienating him from others in lonely stand-alone shots. Yet in other scenes, the setting becomes a fantastical playground for the man-cub to play with his wolf siblings. In the film’s attempt to create realistic animals, many of the creatures have scars, bald patches and other imperfections. The overall effect is a cast that looks tougher and more calloused to the jungle’s hard knocks. At one point, even Mowgli sustains a painful gash along his arm that leaves a garish scar. It’s as if this is the darker, grittier versions of some of our beloved “Jungle Book” characters.
Perhaps the weakest link in the film’s food chain is first-timer Callie Kloves’ anemic script, overstuffed by fillers of little substance. The story does not move as swiftly as the wolves do. The script’s solution to standing apart from the classic story is to add new characters and subplots; unfortunately, too much of a good thing can also tire a viewer out or bore them. The shiny new appeal wears off, and the additions become merely another stretch on the runtime. And yet, some elements look too similar to other films, like the new mangy striped hyena that follows Shere Khan, which looks and functions quite a bit like the spotted hyena characters that follow Scar in “The Lion King.” As Mowgli, Chand shoulders the responsibility to move the story forward with a wide-eyed and energetic performance. Unfortunately, even his youthful antics feel slowed by how much story he needs to crawl through.
One of the stranger additions to “Mowgli” is the character of Bhoot (voiced by Serkis’ son, Louis Ashbourne Serkis). Like Mowgli, the albino misfit wolf-cub doesn’t get along with the others in the pack, and his story warps into an anti-bullying PSA. There might be some inexplicably flawed designs that flatten Shere Khan’s nose or make Bagheera look overly muscular, but Bhoot doesn’t even look like it belongs in this movie. It’s more like a cartoon character (with paws that point inward and an unsettling smile) opposite the other grizzled wolves.
Another addition, John Lockwood, is more than just an extra name in the cast list. He is at once both a part of the fight between man and nature and a nod to India’s colonial past. At first, he’s welcomed into the village as a seasoned tiger-killer, but eventually, the locals grow impatient with Shere Khan’s unabated attacks on their herds and ask the white hunter if he could actually catch the tiger. Named after Rudyard Kipling’s father, Lockwood is a slippery character capable of treating Mowgli kindly, in front of the other villagers, while still killing and maiming animals for profit.
If this was Serkis or Kloves’ idea to bring up the issue of colonialism, it comes, ironically, at the expense of the other Indian actors in the cast. Lockwood’s presence is much more substantial than any of the other villagers, including the one played by Freida Pinto, who barely has any lines of dialogue.
As an actor, Serkis may be the industry’ mo-cap master, but storytelling through performance is a different skill than writing or directing. The forced additions of characters like Bhoot needlessly bloat the movie’s mismatched visual style and misfit character looks. Since it can take years to put one of these CGI-filled movies together, it was perhaps poor timing that “Mowgli” followed Jon Favreau’s 2016 live-action reimagining of Disney’s 1967 animated movie.
While Serkis and his team tried to separate his retelling from the others, the experiments and extras did not always work out. With any luck, Serkis can go back to the drawing board with a better script and a better sense of the story he wants to tell.