Monday, December 10, 2018

Review: Netflix's "Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle" is neither a children's movie or a blockbuster

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle Review
Andy Serkis is our great digital star. From portraying Gollum in "Lord of the Rings," to King Kong in Peter Jackson's recent remake of "King Kong," to Cesar in the "Planet of the Apes" prequel trilogy" all the way over to Supreme Leader Snoke in the latest "Star Wars" movies. He's certainly helped change the way we view special effects in Hollywood and pioneered what actors could do along with the new technology. Its always a pleasure to see an artist push themselves, trying once again to break new ground. Andy Serkis has now stepped into the director's chair for "Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle" which yet another live-action retelling of "The Jungle Book."

Serkis' movie has had a rough upbringing. It was originally made in 2016, but he there was time set aside for technology to catch up ever slow slightly to fit Serkis' vision. Plus Paramount Pictures wanted to distance themselves from Disney's "The Jungle Book" that came out that same year. This was bound to be yet another example of Hollywood studios going toe-to-toe with identical material. Every once in awhile movies with the exact same premise find themselves battling for the dollars, and one is usually triumphant and the other loses. Serkis' "Mowgli" kept getting pushed back until Paramount didn't know what to do with it. So they did what any studio would do in this day and age, they sold the movie to Netflix!

Netflix has released the film this passed weekend. And Disney's "The Jungle Book" is still so fresh in memory that its hard to set that film aside while watching "Mowgli." Although, I will praise Serkis for not simply doing a simple adaptation of the Jungle Book. Rudyard Kipling had many writings about Mowgli and the Jungle, and I've never read his stories. So who knows how book accurate this movie is. But its certainly not a children's movie. "Mowgli" is a rather mature portrayal of Mowgli and his animal friends. Well, at least most of the time. Tone is the biggest and most noticeable problem with "Mowgli." Serkis is caught between making a kid-friendly movie and also making a Jungle version of "Lord of the Rings." There are definitely some cool decisions and its often bracing at times. But the tonal shifts are so limp and so confusing that its hard to focus on the film.

Focus seems to have gone every which way during the making of "Mowgli." Not only is tone a huge problem, but so is deciphering what the movie is about. I think overall its about a boy who gets lost in the jungle and he's having a bit of an identity crisis. Is Mowgli a being of the jungle or is a boy destined to be a man? That's a good story to tell, especially when using characters from "The Jungle Book." But I'm not entirely sure that's this movie. At least not for the most part. I can't tell if Serkis is also telling a story about jungle politics. I can't tell if telling a story about man's fear of the unknown. I can't tell if he's telling a simple good guys versus bad guys story. Or maybe he's telling a story about a boy who wants to fit in? Its tough to tell and there being no focus in the storyline can be daunting at times.

But maybe you won't pay attention to all the narrative flaws. Because my freaking god is this movie gorgeous to look at. The animal designs for Bagheera (Christian Bale), Kaa (Cate Blanchet), Baloo (Serkis), Shere Kahn (Benedict Cumberbatch), Raksha (Naomi Harris), Akela (Peter Mullen) and any all other animal characters is beyond top-notch. There was a mesh of special effects and motion capture that brought the animals to life. How motion capture played into is anybody's guess but its definitely kind of freaking and kind of remarkable to see a Christian Bale-like face on that of a panther. Certainly an interesting choice that I think overall did payoff. Its a gorgeous, gorgeous movie and it certainly seems like Serkis is channeling Peter Jackson after years and years of working with him.

I think Rohan Chand is a great Mowgli, and I think he did exactly what the script calls for. The other humans are bit of a letdown. Simply because, absolutely nothing is done with them. Mowgli makes his way into a human village. He meets and befriends Messua, played by Freida Pinto. She becomes a surrogate mother. At least I think so, I am pretty sure Pinto barely speaks the entire movie. Her subplot has absolutely zero development. There are human characters here that are simply too wooden for my taste and the human village detour is a story plot that goes nowhere.

When its all said and done, I think you'll have a great time thinking about how "The Jungle Book" did better and had this been a real box office battle, Disney would have prevailed. Instead of getting lost in this movie, you play the compare and contrast game, which I'm sure wasn't the intent.


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