The latest movie adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” can’t quite be called a “gritty reboot” of the often less-than-faithful cinematic versions of the 1894 story collection.
“Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” has a lot more dirt, blood and death in it than any movie from the Kipling source I’ve seen. That stands to reason, as many such films have been Disney products. This isn’t; it was made by Warner Bros. and acquired by Netflix.
In addition, it’s directed by Andy Serkis, who’s best known as an actor working largely in the motion-capture realm (like as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films). “Mowgli” opens with a flesh-and-blood baby abandoned in the jungle, lifted and carried by a formidable digital panther, Bagheera, voiced by Christian Bale. Bagheera deposits the “man cub” with a family of soulful wolves, who adopt him over the objections of some of their fellow creatures.
But without the wolves’ protection, Mowgli, as the man cub comes to be known, will surely fall victim to the old but still lethal terrorist tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch, more comfortably villainous here than he was in “The Grinch,” to be sure). Also looking out for the boy, for reasons no one can quite figure out, is the mystical, sardonic python Kaa (Cate Blanchett).
The first half of the movie, wherein Mowgli (Rohan Chand) trains with the lovable/irascible bear Baloo (Serkis) for a contest that will determine whether he can join the wolves in their hunt, is a striking if at times too-pretty feat of fantasy world-building. The teenage Chand gives a scarily credible physical performance.
Callie Kloves’s script, which situates the action in early 20th-century India, diverges from the Kipling stories considerably and at times uneasily. In the second half, after Mowgli is compelled to join human society, the movie makes some daring moves exploring what one might call the dual nature of Mowgli. He’s not fully a jungle creature, and some of what he sees of humanity delights him. But the human hunter (Matthew Rhys), who’s looking after him in his new world, breaks Mowgli’s heart, which in turn unleashes the boy’s anger.
The filmmakers are clearly trying to bring an uncommon maturity to the fantasy film, and in many respects they succeed. While not everything here works, what does is impressive.