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Non-Review Review: Mowgli

Watching Mowgli, it very quickly becomes clear why Warner Brothers sold the film to Netflix, rather than pressing forward with a theatrical release.

Mowgli was always going to suffer in comparison to The Jungle Book, Jon Favreau’s live-action reimagining of the animated Disney classic. When the two projects were in development, they seemed like obvious dueling movies; like The Prestige and The Illusionist, or Deep Impact and Armageddon, or Volcano and Dante’s Peak. It seemed like a game of chicken between two major studios; two rakes on the same beloved property arriving in cinemas at close proximity to one another. When it became clear that The Jungle Book would hit cinemas first, the fear was that Mowgli would look like an inferior imitation.

Bagheering belief.

Those fears were misplaced. Indeed, the most striking thing about Mowgli is how different and distinct it is from The Jungle Book. Despite the similar premise and being based on the same material, there is little chance of any casual audience member confusing them. Ironically, this ends up being an issue of itself. Mowgli is distinct from the iconic Disney film, but for good reason. Andy Serkis’ film is drawing more directly from the work of Rudyard Kipling. This explains the significant differences in terms of tone and narrative. These differences are intriguing and engaging, revealing in their own ways.

However, these differences are also informative. Mowgli‘s relative fidelity to its source material ultimately serves to underscore just how effectively Disney changed the underlying story in The Jungle Book, and just how carefully crafted that other film is to a larger audience. Mowgli is not a bad film, although it does have some serious flaws. However, it is a much less appealing and much weirder film than The Jungle Book. As a result, it makes sense that the film would end up at home on Netflix, where it can afford to be a little stranger and a little more eccentric than the perfectly calibrated Jungle Book.

Bear with me.

Mowgli draws quite heavily from Rudyard Kipling’s original stories in telling this story of Mowgli the Man-Cub. There is a heavy emphasis on fidelity here, which means that Mowgli features a lot more plot (and an appreciably larger cast) than either of the Disney versions of the story. Mowgli attempts to do too much in its runtime, offering a plot driven by a number of big events and with a lead character who is constantly being thrown into a variety of different situations. For example, Mowgli features two prominent human characters (including a villain) who are not properly introduced until over an hour into the runtime.

There is something intriguing in all of this, in the attention to detail within Mowgli. Modern blockbusters might describe it as “world-building”, with a lot of time and effort devoted to the mechanics governing the jungle. Mowgli has to learn and recite “the three laws” of the jungle, participate in a ritualised initiation into the wolf pack that has adopted him, and understand the fraught relationships between the various parties who occupy this wilderness. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into how this imaginary world of talking animals operates, which is an effective way of distinguishing Mowgli from other iterations of the tale.

The tiger’s tale.

Of course, this is something of a mixed blessing. This attention to detail means that Mowgli is constantly explaining how the world operates to the audience, in a way that is not always naturalistic or organic. To pick one example, Mowgli devotes considerable attention to the internal mechanics of the wolf pack wherein Mowgli is raised, right down to the particulars of how and when a leadership challenge might be initiated and who exactly gets to be considered a member of this august jungle institution.

There are moments when all of this goes too far. Mowgli has Baloo as a grumpy old drill sergeant, complaining about the primates who inhabit the canopy. “The monkey people have no law, they’re unpredictable, and they don’t even speak proper,” he states. At another point, the wolf who took Mowgli in after the death of his parents explains that it was not compassion but realpolitick. He admits, “This was always more than a good deed.” Later on, the snake Kaa tries to hoist a “chosen one” narrative atop Mowgli himself, insisting, “One day you will speak and the jungle will listen.”

Handling the material with ‘gli.

This is all unnecessarily complicated, and reflects the modern preoccupation with plot as the most important part of storytelling. If anything, Mowgli demonstrates the appeal of the very simple quest narrative at the heart of The Jungle Book. At its core, The Jungle Book has a loose plot about getting Mowgli back to his own people, which serves as something on which amusing set pieces might be hung. In contrast, Mowgli has the lead character trying to be accepted by the wolves, anointed a chosen one, exiled, returning to “the man village”, reconnecting with nature, and facing his nemesis. It is too much.

At the same time, there is something to be said for how Mowgli commits to its own weirdness. Mowgli is a surprisingly grim film, particularly for audience members whose only experience of Rudyard Kipling’s original stories came through the Disney version. It is more than just the absence of songs or the change in characterisation of supporting figures like Baloo or Kaa. It is a general commitment to the stakes and anxieties of jungle life. Mowgli takes its jungle setting very seriously. While this occasionally leads to over-complications, it is also somewhat refreshing in an age where every movie comes coated in irony.

Wanna join the cub?

There is a strange sincerity to Mowgli. This is perhaps most obvious in the way that the film approaches the character of Bagheera, an iconic part of the lore who received relatively little development in either Disney adaptation. Played by Christian Bale, Mowgli seems much more in tune with the panther than earlier iterations of the tale. Notably, it is the first time that the character’s back story has been articulated on film, which is surprising. Bagheera’s history is a huge part of his character, and having it explicitly stated in Mowgli serves to make the character more tragic and more nuanced.

There is an endearing earnestness to Mowgli, which seems strange in a modern family-friendly film. Taking Mowgli on a hunt with him, Bagheera explains how the predator treats his prey. “We look them in the eye, so the soul doesn’t depart alone.” Even the movie’s comic relief gets these sorts of strange and wistful moments. Played by Tom Hollander, Tabaqui is effectively the comic relief sidekick to Shere Khan. However, Mowgli finds him sitting in a pool in a rare moment of self-reflection. “Sometimes I dream I’m a tiger,” Tabaqui confesses, “but I always wake up a hyena.”

The elephant in the room.

Mowgli occasionally teeters on the edge of going a little bit too far, particularly with its title character. Mowgli is decidedly rougher around the edges than most child protagonists are allowed to be. At one point, he threatens a foe with a flaming branch, warning, “If I ever see you here again, I will set your hide ablaze and watch you burn alive.” When his only friend tries to comfort him while he sulks, he warns the albino runt, “You’re not special, boot. It’s just something your mother tells you to make you feel good about yourself because you came out wrong.”

There is a savagery to Mowgli that is rare to see in a contemporary adaptation of material beloved by a younger audience. Director Andy Serkis repeatedly focuses the camera on the hunting knife dangling around the title character’s neck. At one point, as Shere Khan takes a drink after feeding, the camera focuses on the blood slowly filling the water. This is the rare movie with talking animals that ends in what amounts to a well-orchestrated conspiracy to commit murder, and wherein a pre-pubescent boy appears to contemplate gutting an opponent while they are sleeping.

In a cat-egory all of its own.

This is all alienating and abrasive. It is difficult to imagine Mowgli ever finding an audience in the multiplex, particularly in the modern nostalgia-driven market where any deviation from an established template is met with instinctive hostility. However, there is something to be said for this approach. While it might be a very grim sort of playfulness, there is something wryly subversive in the decision to incorporate Rudyard Kipling’s father into the narrative as a not-so-great white hunter, a cynical acknowledgement of the original story’s colonial subtext. Mowgli is very much its own weird thing.

Of course, even aside from feeling overstuffed, Mowgli has its own significant issues. The movie struggles a great deal in its third act. Part of this is largely down to the fact that the first two acts were so stuffed that there’s no room to properly pay off everything that has been set up, so the film has to fall back on a very convenient and tidy resolution for reasons of efficiency. However, part of that is also down to the fact that the film struggles to keep its two primary antagonist characters in focus at the same time, and so the film gets lost a little as it rushes towards a conclusion.

That said, the animation in Mowgli is impressive. It isn’t a technical game-changer, and maybe isn’t even as well-integrated as the animation in The Jungle Book. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for the attention to detail in the motion capture and the imaging. The animal characters often take on a subtle likeness of their actors, mostly around the eyes. This is particularly true of Peter Mullen as Akela and Christian Bale as Bagheera, which allows for some surprisingly effective emoting from computer-generated characters.

Mowgli is very much an oddity. It is perhaps the runt of the litter, as far as adaptations of The Jungle Book might go. Nevertheless, it also feels somewhat special.

4 Responses

  1. I was skeptical about this movie ever since it was announced it would be released on Netflix. Unless a movie was always meant to be broadcast on Netflix, a shift is never a good sign. But like you said, everything has the liberty to be its own weird little thing on there.I loved Favreau’s jungle book and I cant wait to see what he does with the lion king. Great review.

    • I don’t know. Netflix bought Annihilation’s international distribution rights from Paramount, and it’s one of my films of the year.

      • True, but being on Netflix hurt the movie a lot since it’s such a visual and audio spectacle. When a planned wide release moves to Netflix it’s usually a bad sign.

      • Yep. Mowgli is a messy, flawed film, to be sure. But I’m glad it exists.

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