“The jungle is eternal,” purrs a panther — the second most charismatic black panther to hit screens in 2018, for those of you keeping count — to his “little brother,” a boy with limpid eyes and long back hair. This large, nurturing feline is referring to the home that provides them with renewable sustenance, shelter and the occasional slithering-reptile narrator. He might also be talking about Rudyard Kipling’s durable, endlessly adaptable 1894 collection of stories revolving around blessed beasts and children: the aforementioned big brother Bagheera, the boisterous bear Baloo, the cunning python Kaa and the deadly tiger Shere Khan. Oh, yeah, and the “man-cub” — Mowgli, an Indian child raised by wolves and destined to be the bridge between folks who walk on two legs and his furrier friends who stalk, creep and amble along on four.
Dubbed The Jungle Book, Kipling’s anthology has come to represent most of what’s great about the British author’s boy’s-adventure storytelling, as well as what’s not-so-great about his 19th-century worldview. And it, too, is an eternal fixture on the pop-culture landscape. One generation knew it as a rousing Korda brothers colonialist-exotica epic; another as a Disney cartoon with catchy tunes; another as a Christmas-season blockbuster; and still another as a live-action, A-list adaptation of the Mouse Ears Inc.’s animated classic. Motion-capture maestro Andy Serkis’s take on the material may have unwittingly become a victim of bad timing, bad luck, competing studios, cold feet, changing industry trends and make-money-moves deals. (There’s a hell of a backstory here.) But you can say this for the actor-turned-director’s serious, stone-cold sober interpretation of Mowgli & Co’s rousing narrative: It is not your father’s Jungle Book. More like your great-grandfather’s.
Both kid-friendly and prepubescent-nightmare-inducing, Mowgli — laden with the unfortunate, no-favors-done subtitle “Legend of the Jungle” — is an attempt to keep the source material’s more feral, animalistic instincts intact. It isn’t one of those “dark revisionist” redos that have been all the rage for the past decade (“I love Alice in Wonderland, but I sure wish it was more bleak and mall-Goth-y ….” “Here you go!”). But the movie starts with Mowgli’s mother and father being torn to shreds by a tiger, an event which is not seen but still presented as horrifically as possible, and it only gets more bloodthirsty from there. There’s a kill-or-be-killed vibe throughout, even when the tween Mowgli (Rohan Chand) isn’t being actively threatened by a chops-licking Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch). You never forget that the man-cub is a little boy lost in a world of creatures, and even the most protective of the bunch will fight tooth-and-claw if they have to. We don’t mean figuratively, either.
It’s a Jungle Book reading that prizes predatory realism, in other words, albeit one presented with CGI bells and mo-cap whistles that run the gamut from impressive — bear necessities, indeed! — to “was this directly lifted from a PlayStation 2 video game cut scene?” The celebrity voicework is equally bipolar. Christian Bale’s panting, stentorian Bagheera (you assume the actor lived among panthers for months and grew a fine coat of actual ebony fur in preparation for the part) and Andy Serkis’s own Ursidae-raised-in-London’s-East-End Baloo bring the soul as well as sound and fury; Cumberbatch’s killer Khan, meanwhile, is all aural mustache-twirling à la his Smaug from The Hobbit and the idea of Cate Blanchett hissing through Kaa’s consonants is better in conception rather than execution.
Once Mowgli makes his way to the man village after an abduction-by-monkeys incident, a wounding and an exile, you’re ready for some actual Homo sapien interactions. The movie gives the young hero a maternal figure in the form of Messua, a kindly woman played by Freida Pinto and reduced to a glorified cameo; we also get John Lockwood, an archetypal Great White Hunter who views the jungle as nothing but trophy-room fodder. It’s the exchanges between this representation of a for-sport predator, one who The Americans‘ Matthew Rhys manages to make both dignified and pathetic, and the boy that come off as the most interesting — a break from the mo-cap Serkis Maximus that make up the majority of the spectacle.
Listen: No one would dispute that the actor-turned-director has revolutionized the form, or that he understands the importance of performance whether he’s portraying Planet of the Apes‘ chimp equivalent of Che Guevara or calling the shots. (Serkis’s 2017 directorial debut Breathe, made in between production stop-starts for this project, may be upper-crust schmaltz, but it’s also a primo actor’s playground.) It’s simply that the effect becomes tiresome as time goes by with Kipling’s anthropomorphic menagerie, even with the best thespians on board. And as the entire third act slouches toward grudge matches and vengeance quests, Mowgli quits reaching for the peaks and simply settles into a familiar uncanny-valley groove. There’s much to gasp and fawn over here, and too much forgettable filler. But at least audiences have a chance to see it, so Serkis and his collaborators can finally turn the page on this particular book.