‘Mowgli’ Review: “Really, truly, a gem in the heart of the Netflix Jungle”

mowgli 2

When watching a film, it is the best feeling when the film manages to surprise me. Now, I am not talking about plot twists and I’m not talking about a movie surprising me by being much better than I thought it would be; instead, I am talking about a movie surprising me, no matter its level of quality, with how much I enjoyed it. For me, this is where I would place Mowgli. Don’t get me wrong, the quality of the film definitely surprised me as well, but given the circumstances of this film’s release (originally being slated for an October release this year before Warner Bros. surprisingly sold the film to Netflix, just has how Paramount did with The Cloverfield Paradox and Annihilation), I believed that I wouldn’t enjoy it all that much; if the studio itself didn’t have enough faith in the film to release it theatrically, why should I expect appreciate it very much? And yet, as I sat watching in the comfort of my living room with my family, I couldn’t help but marvel at not just the film’s captivating visuals but even more so the level of patience and thoughtfulness with which the story before me was being told. On the strength of the cast members’ incredibly committed performances and the layered writing mixed with a surprisingly patient directorial eye from Andy Serkis, Mowgli proves itself to be a family film with heft and thematic depth that resonated with me in a way that was both completely unexpected, yet totally welcome.

Based on the stories from Rudyard Kipling, Mowgli tells the story of the titular child, a young boy raised in the Jungle. After a massacre by the fearsome Tiger, Shere Khan, in which Mowgli’s mother is killed, the kind black Panther, Bagheera, takes the boy deeper into the Jungle and deposits him at the den of a pack of wolfs. Weary of the “man-cub,” yet still fearing for its safety, Nisha, the Mother Wolf, appeals to Akela, the Leader of the Pack, who allows the boy to be raised as a wolf. Years pass and the “man-cub” Mowgli grows up as one of wolf cubs, learning alongside the others under the tutelage of the burly Bear, Baloo, so that he may fully become a member of the Pack. But Mowgli senses that there something different about him, not fully allowing him to truly fit in anywhere in the Jungle. This internal conflict is further complicated by external forces as the ravenous Shere Khan resurfaces. Having tasted Mowgli’s mother’s blood, he now desires to rend Mowgli limb from limb, trying to force the Pack to give him up by killing the calves from the nearby human village, thereby drawing in hunters to kill off the pack. Mowgli journey will be one of sacrifice and painful separation, but will ultimately be one of self-discovery as well that will help decide the fate of the Jungle at large.

As you can tell, Mowgli not the Jungle Book story that you remember. While not devoid of levity, gone are the cuddly aspects of the creatures with whom Mowgli fraternizes, as well as the musical stylings provided by both of the Disney adaptations. This is a story about man and animals and what makes them different, where there is no one who can truly protect Mowgli but himself and where his actions have hard consequences. This story is indeed “darker” and in the vein of the more recent slate of Warner Bros. films that have graced the silver screen (DCEU anyone?). However, while many may consider this a folly on the part of Warner Bros., I personally feel that this might be the film’s greatest asset. Darkness does not necessarily mean harshness and grittiness. In the case of this film, darkness instead comes to mean weight, thoughtfulness, and patience. This is a film that is deeply felt, where the heft of the story is found in the expressions of the characters and manner in which they speak to one another. This is a movie that presents real dangers for the characters to circumvent (sometimes unsuccessfully), expressed patiently through carefully chosen visuals balanced with well-spoken dialogue.

And yet, despite all this, Mowgli is still very much a family film. In my review of The House with a Clock in its Walls, I praised director Eli Roth for bringing a sense of darkness to the proceedings which really livened up the overall film. Watching the Halloween-themed movie, it was a pleasant surprise to see a film that made an active effort not to treat its child audience members (the movie being based on a children’s classic from the ’70s) as younger than they really are. The scenes in the film did not spill overboard into gratuitous violence and gore yet managed to maintain a more mature, though still appropriate tone in scenes of action or suspense. The film also was willing to take a more mature route when examining personal relationships, in this case looking at how children can take advantage of one another via insecurity. Mowgli opts for this more mature approach, not treating its younger audience as delicate or unaware. The film trusts the audience to be able to digest certain more brutal aspects of the story as well as tune in to its more subtle nuances.

What aids Mowgli in its endeavor, and puts it above House with a Clock, is a strong script that, admittedly like its Disney “live-action” counterpart, eschews the vignette-like structure of the original work in favor of a straightforward narrative. What sets it apart from its Disney counterpart, however, is that this script (from Callie Kloves) is a slower burn, building in an almost chapter-like fashion as we watch Mowgli take in the world around him and learn more about himself. The darkness and maturity are found very much in the dialogue, through which we learn about the laws of the Jungle from the lips of the Wolves and Baloo the bear. The way in which they speak of the Jungle clues us into a hierarchy based on honor and strict sets of rules in which Mowgli must learn to operate in if he wants to become a member of the Pack. Shere Khan’s dialogue also adds to the darkness of the proceedings with his dialogue on how he hungers for Mowgli’s blood.

But the greater purpose of the dialogue is to show how Mowgli is not like the other animals, effectively posing the story’s biggest question, “what separates men from animals?” What the film posits is that this distinction is not always clear, and it does so by balancing the dialogue with patient visual storytelling, telling us about these differences before going on to illustrate them with subtle, yet resonant imagery. Sitting at the helm of the feature, motion-capture performance pioneer Andy Serkis shows himself to be a director who surprisingly avoids grand spectacle. Despite having turned in larger than life performances over the past two decades while making use of cutting-edge technology, Serkis’ storytelling sensibilities see him using that same cutting-edge technology to make creative choices that further the plot and express ideas rather than just dazzling the eye. This is not to say that the film is without visual flourish as the color palette of the film is rich and vibrant, making the film pop with Jungle coming alive in every shade of green, the Village glowing with the warmth and vitality ceremonial reds, oranges, yellows, and blues, all set against the backdrop of a heavy golden sun hanging in the sky. But this is all merely set dressing for a story that truly belongs to the actors, a story in which Serkis merely guiding us to certain realizations along the way and specifically punctuating key moments with expressive visuals and no words. My favorite moments, in particular, include the cross-cutting of Akela’s failed hunt of a gazelle into Mowgli’s prophetic meeting with Kaa, both foreshadowing and catalyzing what is to come, the image of Mowgli handing an Elephant back its severed tusk in bargaining exchange, and visual of Mowgli’s painted face, lined with lines of washed out tears after Mowgli has a horrifying revelation in the man village.

Of course, the biggest tool in Serkis’ storytelling toolbox is the face. Being an actor himself, it should come as no surprise that it is the actors’ expressions that he really uses to tell the story. His actors are more than up to the task as the entire cast shines in bringing this story to life. Whether by way of the emotionality of their performances or merely by great casting, every single actor pops on screen and makes an impression in some way (notably, Cate Blanchett makes for the best example of strong casting, as though she may not be the most inspired choice to play the ominous and prophetic Python, Kaa, she does one hell of job with her foreboding, yet instantly entrancing performance). Of all the actors play the animals, it may come as no surprise that Christian Bale as Bagheera, Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan, and Andy Serkis himself as Baloo, make some of the strongest impressions. Bale gives Bagheera a bit of a deep rasp that communicates his world-weariness, while the furrowing of his eyebrows as he delivers bad news to Mowgli showcases just how deeply he cares for the “man-cub,” and how much it pains him to say what he has to say. Cumberbatch, no strange to evil CGI characters given his work as Smaug in the Hobbit trilogy, says every line with a devilish grin as though he is licking his lips in frightening anticipation of eating Mowgli, creating a character that is equal parts unnerving and charismatic, while Serkis’ gives his Baloo a gruff exterior as he trains Mowgli, deviating from the more loveable (and admittedly dim-witted) characterization of past adaptations, while still giving a sly smirk to show his affection for the boy. The cast members that do surprise as animals, however, are that of Serkis’s son, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, as the albino Wolf, Bhoot, and Peter Mullan as Akela. Perhaps it was because I spent the entire movie trying to pinpoint why exactly Akela’s voice sounded so familiar (I still don’t know), but Mullan’s solemn yet chieftain delivery as well as his kind face was utterly captivating, while Louis Serkis’ enthusiastic and bouncy performance not only brought levity and heart to the film but also went a very long way toward selling a haunting twist toward the end that you will never see coming.

If you were paying attention as you read, you may have read me commenting on the facial performances of the actors. Indeed, every single animal has been brought to life with exquisite motion-capture that will absolutely take your breath away. Admittedly, the CGI rendering of the animals is a bit spotty throughout the film, with Bagheera, in particular, coming off as unfinished in certain scenes of the movie (Kaa also can look as though she is made of plastic at times). Perhaps this is the price of the film’s ambition, but I honestly did not mind as the incredible motion-capture allowed me to focus on the performances more than the visual effects, and that is where the heart of this film lies. You can actually, at many times throughout the film, see the faces of the actors playing the character in the faces of the animals; and while to some this may be off-putting, I feel that this only adds depth to the performances and creates a more fantastical feel for the film.

With regard to the human performances, Frieda Pinto as Mowgli’s adoptive mother, and Matthew Rhys, as the English Hunter John Lockwood, are well cast in their respective roles, with Rhys’ storyline-in an example of the layeredness of the films writing-subtly dialing into some of the imperialistic themes of Kipling’s original work (though I suspect the very fact that it is so subtle will make it this detail lost on most viewers, understandably so). But the true revelation, and heart of the film, is that of Mowgli himself, played with visceral intensity by young actor Rohan Chand. Chand’s is a performance that really sneaks up on you, coming off as innocent and naive at first before turning into something of considerable depth. Through Chand’s large and expressive eyes, as well as Serkis’ patient and careful direction, we are forced to look at the subtler difference between Mowgli and the wolves, beyond just his appearance. Mowgli strays from the pact, he is not as patient, and questions everything around him in ways that the wolves simply do not; and yet, Mowgli does not fit completely within the world of men, being more feral and intense than the rest of the children, and Chand handles these emotional shifts and nuances with a gravitas that is far beyond his years, particularly in his scenes with Bale’s Bagheera. Chand successfully blurs the lines between man and animal, and while this film has no chance of garnering awards nominations due to its awkward releasing strategy, I hope that Chand garners the appreciation he deserves as with this performance, he truly establishes himself as one of the preeminent child actors working today alongside the like of Jacob Tremblay, Abby Ryder Forston, and Brooklyn Prince.

Verdict: 3½ Stars (out of 4)

Outside of some spotty visual effects work in areas, I feel that the one thing standing in Mowgli‘s way is the subtly with which it tells its story. This is not a flashy film, trading spectacular action and thrills for patient and deliberate storytelling. This is a movie that asks the audience to engage with the story and come with Mowgli on a journey. It is a slower burn than what many may be used to, which is potentially the reason that Warner Bros. shipped the film off to Netflix as they believed that it could not compete in a crowded market. Maybe they were right, but I can’t help but imagine what this film must be like on the big screen. I think it would be worth the price of admission at the theater, and in so, is even more worth watching on Netflix. This film is truly a remarkable gem thanks to some thoughtful direction and nuanced storytelling brought to life by an immaculate cast. Rohan Chand does an incredible job anchoring the film as its star and truly deserves some awards attention.

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