Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle
Netflix’s Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle might pull from the same Rudyard Kipling story as Disney’s The Jungle Book, but this dark tale of survival has no singing bears for the kiddos’ amusement. It’s an exercise in showing the more savage side of life and death amongst both beasts and men.
Like the Disney adaptation, Mowgli follows a young boy (Rohan Chand) as he’s raised by wolves and bears and things. This boy was orphaned while he was quite young and adopted into a wolf family deep in the jungle. These animals all converse with Mowgli and one another in what we hear as English, with no language barriers that we can detect. Like the rest of the wolf pups, he’s taught the ways of the pack by a big bear named Baloo (voiced by director Andy Serkis), and he must keep up with his wolfen peers to officially join the pack as a full member by passing a test. This is kind of difficult given that Mowgli is naturally bipedal and lacks the hunting jaws that the rest of the wolves have, but the boy is determined to fit in and tries his hardest to fare well around these instinctual hunters.
Mowgli has everything stacked against him. Not only is he not actually a wolf, some of those around him don’t think he should join their pack. His mama wolf (Naomie Harris) is protective of him, but everyone else practices tough love with the human boy. They know that if he’s to stay, he needs to be held to a higher standard to survive. After all, there are monkeys and snakes and humans out there that threaten to harm the pack, and new threats come about every day.
The heavy lifting in these performances come from motion-capture CGI animals and largely skillful voice acting from an exemplary cast. The animation falters occasionally, and there are moments when the animals look plain fake. With no real risk of mistaking these creatures for actual animals, additional liberties are taken by the filmmakers to instead add a fictional degree of humanity to them. The hyena henchman Tabaqui (Tom Hollander) has expressive eyes that convey much more than is comfortable to see. The wisdom and awareness in that beast’s eyes show that the sacrifice of realism was possibly necessary in order to advance the characterization of the animals in the jungle, and it’s haunting.
While Mowgli starts out as a slightly grittier version of The Jungle Book, by the end it takes long strides away from any semblance of being a family film. Thematically, the movie has important lessons about the darkness of humanity and the tension between man and nature. However, the moral of these stories should not be taken as a sign that this is a quaint or cheerful fable.