Britain seems to be catching onto Hollywood’s drift. Stick to what makes money and find ways to repackage it and capitalize off tried and true brands. Enter Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle; a British retelling of a tried and true story that was undoubtedly produced in an attempt to capitalize on the success of Disney’s 2016 live action version of The Jungle Book.
Writer Callie Kloves and Director Andy Serkis (who also lends his voice as the character of Baloo) use the same spine of The Jungle Book, an orphaned boy is left in the jungle and adopted by a pack of wolves, a murderous tiger is out for his blood and endangers his pack of wolves lest he be surrendered to it. Same core, yet “Mowgli” replaces musical numbers and boisterousness for death and a somber mood. As the PG-13 rating might suggest, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle caters to an adult audience much more so than any other version of The Jungle Book. While I can appreciate the filmmakers desire to make this story their own, their attempts fall flat.
First, and most egregious, is the re-imagining of Baloo as a hard-nosed humorless instructor whose carefree affability has been replaced with all the fun, flair, and flavor of mushy peas. Apparently the British like their characters just like their food…bland. The quirkiness that makes Baloo the memorable character he has been is abandoned in pursuit of adding another “voice of reason” even though Bagheera (Christian Bale) and Akela (Peter Mullan) sufficiently act as such. Considering this Jungle Book has a much darker tone one might think Baloo could aptly be used for comic relief. Nope. He offers not one utterance of comic joy during the entire 102 minutes of running time.
Another character disappointment comes in the form of the villain, Shere Khan. Well maybe this is more of a casting issue. Following his performance in The Grinch, I’m convinced Benedict Cumberbatch should be served a cease and desist for voicing villains, effective immediately. Idris Elba shined in the role two years ago, offering a chilling iciness that communicated the latent murderous cruelty beneath Shere Khan’s cool, calm, and collected demeanor. Meanwhile, Cumberbatch’s Shere Khan seems cartoonish in comparison.
Similarly to the most recent live action remake in 2016, this version also eliminates the cartoonish features of Kaa (Cate Blanchett) the dastardly sneaky snake. Instead of hungry and hypnotic, Kaa is instead all knowing and heroic, reshaped into an oracle archetype. Kaa knows the past and future, foretelling Mowgli’s future and also saving Mowgli from the clutches of Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch). Yet, Kaa is still somewhat menacing toward Mowgli and at one point threatens to eat the young boy. The character is uneven, which offers some tense moments that some audience members might enjoy. Unlike the others, Kaa’s character re-imagining actually does a better job of moving the story along and adds an interesting twist.
Mowgli isn’t necessarily re-imagined in this new edition, however his character represents a much different theme. Originally, Mowgli’s lesson is what makes him different from the pack (his human nuances) are actually strengths, not weaknesses. The lesson offered a heartwarming theme to children, and also allowed for his acceptance into the wolf pack. In this British retelling, Mowgli is repeatedly shown as someone who doesn’t belong with wolves or men. The awkward middle ground he finds himself in leads to his fate as savior of the jungle and leader in his own right. So the theme is centered more on answering the call of fate. This , as a standalone theme, lacks emotional resonance to make it worthwhile.
All in all, Serkis’ and companies attempt to capitalize off the success of the previous Jungle Book release results in a hollow story that lacks the fun and heart of the original. Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” has a promising idea, retelling the story for an adult audience, but poorly executes it. Without the fun and light-heartedness of the original, or a resonant theme, it left me feeling glad that it was a Netflix release and not something I wasted money and time going to the movies for.