It’s only been two years since the release of Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, so another update to the animated classic, at a glance, seems superfluous. But Andy Serkis’s Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is no simple re-imagining of the original 1967 animated classic, as it draws inspiration directly from Rudyard Kipling’s collection of Mowgli stories, resulting in a vision of the jungle and its laws of survival that’s far less sanitized than that of the prior Disney films, while also retaining a slightly stronger sense of the source material’s anti-colonialist roots and sense of murky morality.
The Mowgli (Rohan Chand) of this film is a feral boy who’s far removed from the psychology of normal human experience, similar to young Victor in François Truffaut’s The Wild Child. As Mowgli’s humanity is buried so deep beneath his animal-like appearance and behaviors, the clash between his savage upbringing and innately human tendencies feels thorny and complex. And the film’s other major characters are more savage than fans of the previous two Jungle Book films might expect, namely Mowgli’s animal mentors: Bagheera (Christian Bale), Baloo (Andy Serkis), and Akela (Peter Mullan), the wolf who served as his surrogate father. (Interestingly, just as in Kipling’s version, there’s no King Louie here to provide comic relief.) Although it’s clear that they all care deeply for Mowgli, they also understand that even with his years of training, he may not be fit to permanently live in the jungle.
The pervasive sense of chaos and deadly danger in the jungle, evidenced by numerous scenes of violence and bloodshed, serves to raise the stakes considerably here, while also blurring the lines between good and evil. Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) is just as ruthless and nefarious as always, but through Mowgli‘s detailed—occasionally too detailed—examination of the laws and norms that govern the jungle, his seething destructiveness is only a small cry from the behavior of many of the film’s other characters. During the “running of the pack,” which tests the readiness of young wolves to join in the night hunts, even Bagheera’s moral compass succumbs to his savage instincts, as he almost tears Mowgli to pieces once he gets a hold of him.
But while the film’s perception of the politics of the jungle is often profound, the same cannot be said of its take on the human world. Once Mowgli is captured by and subsequently cared for by an explorer, John Lockwood (Matthew Rhys), the film attempts to contrast the chaotic violence of the jungle with the more orderly and covert destruction of mankind. But the portrait of the Indian community on the outskirts of the jungle patronizingly presents villagers as totally pure at heart, and thus naïve enough to accept Lockwood’s presence only because he promises to kill Shere Khan for them.
Worse, the initially inquisitive and kind Lockwood is given so little screen time that his sudden transformation into a purely malicious being comes out of nowhere. It makes sense that, given his background in motion capture, Serkis prefers to luxuriate in the textures and beings of the inner jungle—and to the film’s credit, its animation and voice work is superior to that of Favreau’s The Jungle Book. But Mowgli‘s third act introduces numerous potentially interesting moral questions about the intrusions of man upon both nature and other foreign cultures only to rush past them toward a wholly conventional finale. The moral gray areas within which the film initially thrived are thus abandoned in favor of serving up the uncomplicated notion of a virtuous savior who’s needed to restore the jungle to its natural state.