Andy Serkis’ “Mowgli” seemed destined to be a footnote to John Favreau’s “The Jungle Book”. Favreau had Disney money and Disney songs, Favreau’s came out first, Favreau’s made a mint, and worst of all perhaps for Serkis’s film, Favreau’s movie was excellent. Now a full two years after its planned release “Mowgli” has debuted to no fanfare and a massive critical shrug. This all made me sad in the opening minutes of watching “Mowgli” because, within those opening minutes, I knew I was in for a special movie. I was not disappointed.‘Mowgli’ is not only good, but strong enough to slug it out with Favreau’s film for your affections, and what’s more they don’t even need to slug it out. The two directors have told the tale in different enough fashions that they do not detract from each other.
As you may have heard this is a “no songs, no wisecracks” version of “The Jungle Book”. It is not a "no fun" version. There is action galore, and the run-time does not feel needlessly inflated like so many modern movies. It’s serious but never dull, and if you’re afraid seriousness denotes darkness and sadness, well, darkness and sadness are a part of “The Jungle Book”, and this film is no darker than Favreau’s take. “Mowgli” is a big budget, straight-ahead, family a true rarity, and it’s made with such care that I suspect the two years it’s been on the shelf have been spent not only in fine-tuning the look of the movie but it’s shape as well. Things move and shots cut into one another with a noticeable smoothness, and what shots they are.vThe lush photography is constantly breathtaking, Oscar-worthy work by Cinematographer Michael Seresin (“War for the Planet of the Apes”). The jungle is appropriately and expectedly an important character, and Seresin manages to make it the most impressive effect in the movie, and the effects are outrageous.
Favreau really hit on something with the computer effects of “The Jungle Book”. By making the whole film look a touch cartoonish it removed a lot of the distractions of CG creatures. He also used the effects to surreal effect at times. It was canny and inventive. Serkis has gone the other way in “Mowgli”. He tries to make the effects look as real and solid as possible. Do they look real and solid? No, but they come closer than anything I’ve ever seen, and they are not distracting or creepy. There is a degree of adapting the look of the animals to the actors doing their voices. I noticed that the wolf Akela had Peter Mullan’s eyelids and that Shere Khan the tiger looked vaguely like Benedict Cumberbatch, but neither affected my engagement with the film.
More praise goes to the cast, voice and live-action. Rohan Chand is a delightful Mowgli. He has one big emotional moment after the big hunt that he plays wonderfully. I’ll take him over Favreau’s lead, though I liked both in what must be a very difficult gig what with all the lines and effects. Freida Pinto does nothing in the movie but briefly look warm and beautiful, but boy does she, and into the old “should-voice-actors-get-awards-nominations?” debate I offer the case of Christian Bale as Bagheera. I think this is one of my five or so favorite things he’s done in his career. Also, I preferred Cumberbatch’s Khan to Idris Elba’s (but not Ricardo Montalban’s). Elba was always growling and threatening, Cumberbatch has more of a purring, confident menace reminiscent of if not quite matching George Sanders’s marvelous performance in Disney’s animated version. One of my few complaints is that I would have enjoyed a lot more of Eddie Marsan as a hyena.
Another minor complaint would be that in this telling of the story Bagheera and Baloo the bear(Serkis) more or less seem charged with raising all wolf cubs which just seems wrong. I prefer them as friendly neighbors and hail fellows well met to au pairs. A more serious problem was that I found everything involving the elephants a touch too silly and forced. In any event, give “Mowgli” a shot. You may not need another “Jungle Book”, but what about another excellent movie?