Oh…hello, Mowgli. It’s been a while since we’ve seen you. What was it? The Jungle Book made in 2016 by director Jon Favreau? I understand that this new film was in development long before that, but those crafty devils at Disney managed to get one over poor Andy Serkis here. Because of that, it was forced to languish a bit before Netflix scooped it up and here we are in all its glorious CGI and lush jungle visuals. What a mixed-up movie in the grand scheme of what it’s trying to say.
The story of Mowgli is really the story of being from two different worlds and never really belonging to either one. Mowgli is a human being, but he was not raised by other human beings. He was rescued and saved by Bagheera and raised by the wolves. He feels close to the wolves and his pack mainly in spirit with the likes of Bhoot, an albino runt of the litter. At every turn he finds his body to be filled with limitations of being a human over being a wolf. He doesn’t run as fast and he finds himself at odds with the laws of the jungle. He has that connection to his wolf family. He loves them and they love him. However, no matter how much he trains and how much he wants to, he’ll never be a wolf. He has to embrace the part of him that makes him a man-cub. Can the jungle withstand his humanity coming out? The animals only know the humans for the destruction they cause.
Mowgli finds himself drawn to the humans more and more. Bhoot wants to keep him in the pack and with the wolves because with Mowgli by his side, Bhoot is not alone. Bhoot is the most interesting character here, and not just for the reason that he has never been portrayed in any other version of The Jungle Book. He is the smallest of all the wolves and his legs are shorter, so he can barely move to the point that Mowgli has been known to best him in the races. He is also albino, white as the snow in a jungle thick with foliage and green. It is an interesting dichotomy showing Mowgli to not be the only outsider, as no other version of Mowgli’s story has shown him to have a fellow outsider. It helps in an effort to convince Mowgli he belongs, but Bhoot is not enough to convince him of this—Bagheera and Shere Khan make sure of that. Now, with Bhoot, something happens with his character and Mowgli that I know I shouldn’t share. It changes everything about the story.
I remember seeing an interview with Andy Serkis mentioning how much darker this version of Mowgli’s story would actually be, and Bhoot is an example of that darkness. I understand that it is meant to put the human hunter and Shere Khan in the same boat, as it is showing that the animal world and the human world can be filled with cruelty as well. It is the kind of cruelty that truly shapes people’s lives, but it might be too much darkness. It is a moment in the film that makes or breaks it for you. In essence, Bhoot is a child and he speaks with a child’s voice. He has the infectious enthusiasm of a child at play. He’s a kid. This is a spoiler warning. In order to speak candidly about Mowgli, I have to talk about a scene in the movie that throws things off track and feels especially vicious and harsh for a reason not good enough. Your warning is still in effect. Still here? Well…you have been sufficiently warned. There be spoilers ahead.
After failing the challenge and being forced to leave the pack and the jungle, an angry and glowering Mowgli lashes out at Bhoot after he tries to cheer him up (a reminder that Bhoot is also a child and to see his best friend angrily lash out at him upsets him to no end). He slinks away and we don’t hear from him for a while. There’s a reason for this, a good reason. Once Mowgli is in the human village, he bonds with the hunter hired to track down Shere Khan. One night, Mowgli gets curious and goes into the hunter’s trophy room. Mowgli and we in the audience are horrified to find Bhoot’s stuffed corpse staring back at us with his happy-go-lucky grin. Andy Serkis, man…come on! I know you said this movie would be a darker version than done before—no “Bare Necessities” here—but did we really need this? The movie doesn’t do this justice, but it certainly motivates Mowgli to get back at the hunter and face his fears with Shere Khan. They ‘fridged’ a CGI albino wolf. That is something that I can never unsee. Never in my entire life. Bhoot’s lifeless grin will haunt me to my dying days.
Of course, naturally, the CGI animals in this one will be compared to the CGI animals in the Disney one. While they are on par with each other, they both wallow too much in the uncanny valley; however, this Mowgli does feel more like a live-action film. The presence of more humans is a good step for this. I never once thought this was a cartoon, even with the nightmare fuel that was scarred grumpy Baloo and all the human faces dwelling on animals. What kind of head did Shere Khan have? It was square and flat and felt like a cartoon on a real tiger’s body. His hyena sidekick with mange is a nasty little creation next to Shere Khan. Cinema might be too far off for this photorealism to be a good thing when it comes to talking animals, but the animators do a good job making the performance of Christian Bale as Bagheera work. He has a scene with Mowgli in the cage talking about his past as a pet that really hits the nerves, and you feel his reasoning behind what he was trying with Mowgli. Bagheera is the bridge between the two worlds, and it’s why he takes such a keen interest in Mowgli in the first place. He knows what man is capable of, and he hopes he is able to shift man’s perspective away from possessing and towards living harmoniously with nature.
This was a strange mixed bag of a film. It had moments that were well done in the suspense and action department, and the runtime and pacing do not drag at all. It breezes with a pace that is almost relentless; this was a downside to it. We needed more time between Mowgli and his family. (I know I wanted to know more about Mowgli’s relationship with poor Bhoot.) The CGI was off-putting, and the emotions coming from the human faces of the animals had me wondering if I was awake or asleep. A weird little movie. Keep it up, Andy Serkis.
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