Get ready to leave behind the jungle of your childhood imagination. You know, the one where you slumber peacefully in a tree bough, waterfalls ain't nothing but slides and you can float downstream resting on the upturned belly of an amiable bear.
With Mowgli: Legends of the Jungle you enter a place that's dirtier, darker, steamier and more visceral and raw -- a jungle where danger lurks at every turn. In Andy Serkis' interpretation of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book -- streaming on Netflix now -- there's nothing charming and whimsical about being a child lost in the animal kingdom. And there's certainly no singing.
The first thing you'll notice about Serkis' take, five years in the making, is the animals, with their ragged and wild appearance yet oddly expressive faces. To bring the animals to life,.
It's impossible not to keep comparing Serkis' version of this classic story toof its own 1967 animated family favorite. In Disney's remake, the animals are remarkably photo-realistic. But Serkis is purposefully trying to achieve something entirely different. The motion capture is used to make the animal characters deeper, richer and almost more recognizably human.
This no doubt presents more of a challenge for the actors than straightforward voice work, and as a result the animals are expressive and affecting. They're more well-rounded and relatable than their Disney counterparts, even if they're not as instantly charming. Christian Bale's nuanced performance as Bagheera the panther and Benedict Cumberbatch's ferocity as tiger Shere Khan are standouts that translate particularly powerfully through the performance capture.
Conversely, though Cate Blanchett's voice work is magnificent, some of the techniques used to bring her flavor into Kaa the snake don't manifest themselves on screen as strongly as I'd hoped.
Another disappointment? The character Baloo, played by Serkis himself, feels slightly like a caricature and overly rough around the edges. The singing, dancing slacker of your Disney memories is gone, which leaves this already dark film sorely lacking any softness or comic relief.
But as you'll have guessed from the film's title, it's not all about the animals. In Disney's version, Mowgli felt more like a narrative device drawing the animals of the jungle together so we could hear their stories. In Serkis' hands, Mowgli is less of an ensemble player. His character development is central to the plot, especially in the second half. The movie feels like a coming-of-age tale as the man-cub seeks to establish his identity as not quite human, not quite wolf -- simultaneously both and neither.
It did come as a surprise when, bang in the middle of the film, the plot veered wildly off course from the familiar narrative the Disney films established atop Kipling's work. Some may hate this startling divergence, but I enjoyed the sudden realization that I didn't know exactly what was going to happen next, especially after being lulled into a false sense of security by familiar opening scenes.
Despite the inevitable comparisons, both Disney's version and Serkis' reimagining are worth watching -- though I'd save Netflix's muddier, bloodier version until the little ones are past peak Disney age.
Serkis has made a visually arresting film that Netflix is lucky to have gotten its hands on. It has more than the bear necessities required to put it on your watch list, even if it is lacking the music.
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