Movie Review: “Mowgli: Legend Of The Jungle” Is Fine As A Directorial Debut, But That’s It

Rohan Chand as "Mowgli" in the Netflix film "Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle"

Rohan Chand as “Mowgli” in the Netflix film “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.” Photo credit: Netflix

Synopsis (via Netflix):

Acclaimed actor and director Andy Serkis reinvents Rudyard Kipling’s beloved masterpiece, in which a boy who would become a legend, wants nothing more than to find a home. Torn between two worlds, that of the jungle and that of humankind, Mowgli must navigate the inherent dangers in each on a journey to discover who he really is. Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Freida Pinto, Matthew Rhys and Naomie Harris lead an all-star cast along with newcomer Rohan Chand (“Mowgli”) in this visually spectacular and emotionally moving adventure. It will also be dubbed in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Bengali.

My review:

Full disclosure: The Jungle Book has never been my favorite story. Rudyard Kipling, one of the icons of the Victorian English colonial mindset, exposes a lot of his conscious and subconscious biases in his various stories about colonial India. His magnum opus, this book about a young Indian boy who is raised by wolves, is a story that feels played out in 2018. Do we need more narratives about a colonized India that becomes more uncomfortable to revisit as the years go on?

The forward-thinking writer and political critic George Orwell, who wrote stories such as Animal Farm and 1984, had a tough time coming to terms with his emotions concerning Kipling, a writer whose works he’d grown up with as a child. As he said in one 1936 essay on the writer:

What is much more distasteful in Kipling than sentimental plots or vulgar tricks of style, is the imperialism to which he chose to lend his genius. The most one can say is that when he made it the choice was more forgivable than it would be now. The imperialism of the ‘eighties and ‘nineties was sentimental, ignorant and dangerous, but it was not entirely despicable. The picture called up by the word “empire” was a picture of overworked officials and frontier skirmishes, not of Lord Beaverbrook and Australian butter. It was still possible to be an imperialist and a gentleman, and of Kipling’s personal decency there can be no doubt. It is worth remembering that hew as the most widely popular English writer of our time, and yet that no-one, perhaps, so consistently refrained from making a vulgar show of his personality.

If he had never come under imperialist influences, and if he had developed, as he might well have done, into a writer of music-hall songs, he would have been a better and more lovable writer. In the role he chose, one was bound to think of him, after one has grown up, as a kind of enemy, a man of alien and perverted genius.

In 1942, as a response to T.S. Eliot calling Kipling a fascist, Orwell tries to defend Kipling from that word, but is even more overt in his dislike of Kipling’s imperialist actions. 

It is no use claiming, for instance, that when Kipling describes a British soldier beating a ‘n[****]’ with a cleaning rod in order to get money out of him, he is acting merely as a reporter and does not necessarily approve what he describes. There is not the slightest sign anywhere in Kipling’s work that he disapproves of that kind of conduct–on the contrary, there is a definite strain of sadism in him, over and above the brutality which a writer of that type tens to have. Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.

Orwell’s complicated, but mostly offended feelings toward Kipling mirror my own. I, too, have grown up with The Jungle Book thanks to Disney, of course, but also to one of the very first cartoon series I watched as a young child back in 1991 or 1992, Jungle Book Shōnen Mowgli. While I could care less about Disney’s version, Jungle Book Shōnen Mowgli was something my sister and I would act out as kids, climbing on the living room couch, pretending we were Mowgli and his wolf brothers climbing trees. Those memories of young me crawling around on all fours on the back of a couch with my sister are some of my most favorite memories. It just so happens that an anime, by way of a “jingo imperialist,” gave me those memories. Realizing where your best memories stem from are just one of the challenges of living in a world that still abides by the colonizing, imperialist mindset. It’s doubly bad if you’re a member of those who were colonized.

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The background from which The Jungle Book hails from is just one of the reasons Andy Serkis’ Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle might not be the best film to make nowadays. Seeing how America is becoming more culturally aware (despite Trump and the alt-right), it seems like a backwards move to turn back the hands of time back to the 1800s. There is not much left in this narrative that applies to today, which features a pop culture landscape that now includes Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, Wonder Woman, Oceans 8, A Wrinkle in Time, Aquaman and the upcoming Blue Beetle and Shang-Chi films. Some of these films I mentioned are awesome, and some most definitely aren’t. But regardless, they are changing how we view each other and how we view our past, present and future. Looking back to The Jungle Book for comfort is a fool’s errand; there is no comfort to be had in Queen Victoria’s Empire.

Rohan Chand as "Mowgli" in the Netflix film "Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle"
Rohan Chand as “Mowgli” in the Netflix film “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.” Photo credit: Netflix

But even with that said, I’m not sure if comfort is something Serkis was going for. Certainly, with the amount of pain that happens in this film, particularly to poor little Rohan Chand as Mowgli, emotional comfort is the last thing viewers get. In fact, it’s actually hard to say what Serkis wanted to achieve with this movie. Maybe it’s just his favorite book. We all have our favorite books that we know are problematic. But even with that being the case, I don’t know what message Serkis wants to assert with this film. The most overt message seems to be how much 3D and motion capture technology can be crammed into an hour and a half film, and there is a lot. 

The amount of motion capture makes everything look like a well-done virtual reality video game. This is both a good and bad thing. The good is to see just how much the power of the computer can make us suspend our disbelief with regards to talking animals. We’ve seen it used to great effect in other Serkis-starring films like The Lord of the Rings series and The Planet of the Apes series. But the bad is that it feels like every animal in Mowgli needs another pass through the rendering process. You can tell everything exists inside a computer, and sometimes that can pull you out of the movie, especially when Chand is in the scene next to Baloo the bear (Serkis), Mowgli’s foster brother-figure panther Bagheera (Christian Bale) the mercurial boa constrictor Kaa (Cate Blanchett), the villainous tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Mowgli’s foster wolf-mother, Nisha (Naomie Harris).

The film wants to be one that’s pushed forward by stellar acting, and in some areas it is. The film is propped up by the performances of Bale (who once again reminds me of why I fell in love with his voice acting for Thomas in Disney’s Pocahontas, another problematic element of my childhood), Serkis, the master of motion capture, and Chand, who is doing a ton of hardcore work for a child actor tasked with acting against virtually nothing.

Other actors in this film, such as Blanchett and Harris, don’t have tons to do. Harris plays the typical “gentle mother” stereotype and Blanchett does her best to make Kaa more fleshed out. Cumberbatch sounds sinister, as he should, but he also sounds like he’s doing his best Jeremy Irons-as-Scar impression.

Shere Khan in the Netflix film "Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle"
Shere Khan in the Netflix film “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.” Photo credit: Netflix

The person who probably has the worst end of the stick is Freida Pinto, who plays Messua, a young woman who becomes Mowgli’s human foster mother once he’s abandoned by the wolf pack. But as Messua, Pinto does nothing except act blandly kind. Even worse, she barely says anything. Her character is just there to be, like Nisha, the stereotype of a gentle mother.

Messua’s relationship of sorts with the white almost-savior of the film, Lockwood (Matthew Rhys) is conveniently left unresolved and unaddressed. It’s not clear if they are in a relationship, but it’s also interesting how the film doesn’t do anything to refute anyone’s inference, since clearly, Lockwood is set up as Mowgli’s human foster father and Messua is taking the motherly role.

After doing a bit of research, I read that in the original books, Messua was the wife of the richest man in her village. Lockwood is apparently a made-up character for the story, named after Kipling’s father, artist John Lockwood Kipling, who illustrated many of Kipling’s stories. I’m not exactly sure what the point of the decision to include Lockwood (the character) is, especially in relation to Messua. Their unspoken relationship, combined with the fact that Lockwood is seen by the Indian village as the only one who can defeat Shere Khan, is concerning and questionable. Is Lockwood, a white British hunter, being positioned as the “rich man” of the village by the film? If so, then doesn’t that double-down on the imperialist sentiments the original Jungle Book reveled in?

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There’s also some latent colorism to take into consideration with the film; most of the village is of a darker hue, while Pinto is the one that stands out. She’s the most prominent character among the villagers, but she’s also the lightest one in the village, thereby making it seem to viewers like her importance is linked to her skintone. Do I think Serkis, as a director, meant this? No. I think overall, Serkis is a very sensitive director. But some considerations seem to have fallen through the cracks.

Rohan Chand as "Mowgli" and Freida Pinto as "Messua" in the Netflix film "Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle"
Rohan Chand as “Mowgli” and Freida Pinto as “Messua” in the Netflix film “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.” Photo credit: Netflix

Perhaps the film also wants to be one that wants to push an environmental message. A few days ago, when I wrote about my reaction to the latest Aquaman trailer, I wrote how we’re probably going to see a trend of films discussing positive and remedial environmental messages. That can be seen in Mowgli–Mowgli is positioned as someone who is not of the human or animal world, but is instead a bridge between the two. He’s the one who can allow the jungle and the human villages to live in harmony because he understands the value of them both. Lockwood, by contrast, represents the worst of imperialist thought–that the environment can not only be tamed, but only exists for human exploitation.

For instance, the film makes a point of touching on different schools of thought when it comes to hunting. Bagheera teaches Mowgli that hunting is a necessity for life, not something to enjoy. To honor and respect the kill, you must look it in the eyes as it dies in order to not send it off to the other side alone. Meanwhile, Lockwood kills for sport, resulting in many of his “trophies” being rare animals, including a certain animal whose background I will not spoil, since that reveal is actually one of the saddest parts of the film. Mowgli meshes these two schools of thought together; he won’t kill for sport, but will kill for revenge if he has to.

Secondly, the animals talk about the jungle losing ground as the villagers encroach further and further into uncharted territory. Mowgli can act as a barrier between the two worlds; he can protect the jungle from villagers who don’t know their boundaries, and he can protect the villagers from animals that might want to take over where Shere Khan leaves off.

Once you get into the film, there are some emotional moments that will tug at your heart. But overall, I feel like this film is too muddied; it lacks a definite point of view. Serkis has done a lot of second unit directing and assistant directing, but this is Serkis’ debut as the leading director of a film. Mowgli definitely seems indicative of someone’s first film. It shows Serkis has a lot of promise as someone who can mature into a great, confident director with a definite viewpoint. But seeing how Serkis is someone who has done a lot of cinematography work that is more workman-like in scope, it’s clear that Serkis has to gain some more experience to break out of that workman shell.

The film also shows that Serkis is someone who works well with other actors, something that’s important for a good director. He seems like a nice guy anyway, but his collaborative stance is also something I feel he’s developed from his motion capture work, particularly with his Apes work, which relies on actors and movement coaches working together to develop characters.

Rohan Chand ("Mowgli) and Director Andy Serkis on the set of the Netflix film "Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle"
Rohan Chand (“Mowgli) and Director Andy Serkis on the set of the Netflix film “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.” Photo credit: Netflix

The film also shows that Chand, who has starred in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Bad Words, The Hundred-Foot Journey and Jack and Jill among other projects, has the ability to expand into a great actor if he’s given more to do in Hollywood. There was a lot Chand had to manage in this film, including managing stuntwork and acting against imaginary creatures in an imaginary jungle. I can’t fault his performance in this film, since his huge, expressive doe eyes keep you tethered to the child’s safety as if he was your own.

But overall, Mowgli is a good first attempt. It’s something that would be fine to watch as a diversion, especially if you are a a Jungle Book completist. But it’s also something that might lose your interest, especially since it’s a story that doesn’t completely resonate with today’s time.