Tuesday 11 December 2018

On demand: "Mowgli"

True: in late 2018, another leaf through Kipling's Jungle Book feels barely necessary. In his defence, director Andy Serkis began work on his live-action/motion capture hybrid Mowgli back in 2014 in the wake of his contributions to Fox's successful Planet of the Apes revival; it reportedly took longer than imagined for Serkis's Imaginarium technicians to capture all the vital motion, and the project's cause wasn't helped when Disney rolled out their juggernaut live-action remake of the 1967 Jungle Book, to great acclaim and staggering box-office returns, at Easter 2016. As the makers of 1998's Deep Impact - the end-of-the-world movie left for dust by that year's more muscular Armageddon - could tell you, there is rarely room in the popular imagination for two films on the same subject. (And as those behind the 2018 Robin Hood might add, leaving even a ten- or twenty-five year gap between retellings is no guarantee audiences won't turn their noses up, reasoning they've seen it all before.) Studio Warner Bros. first put the project on hold - freeing Serkis to push through last year's period weepie Breathe - then sold it onto the royally flush Netflix; it now limps out, wounded and a touch bloodied, in time for pre-Christmas matinees, having picked up a marketing subtitle ("Legend of the Jungle") that never appears on screen, and serves to remind us, not that we need a reminder, where this story has sprung from.

The story itself is much the same as it ever was - that of the forest foundling (played here by Rohan Chand) literally raised by wolves, then pursued by a tiger and protected by a bear - yet given a different shading and rhythms. (For one thing, there are no songs.) "Darkness has come to these parts," hisses the snake Kaa (voiced by Cate Blanchett) during a scenesetting montage, and this is very much the straightfaced, post-Nolan reading of Kipling, as if Mowgli were a superhero desperately crying out for his own origin story. (The original shooting title was the not terribly original Jungle Book: Origins.) After the death of the boy's mother (dashed through in the opening seconds, in a manner that instantly flags executive indecision), we're offered a succession of sweeping setpieces, interspersed with shallow pools of subtext about a boy caught between two cultures, everything pointing to a final battle royale in which our boy leads an army of disparate animal factions against a growling Big Bad (the tiger Shere Khan, as voiced by a never-plummier Benedict Cumberbatch). The final shot, which locates Mowgli on a cliff overlooking the jungle he apparently now lords over, explicitly evokes the imagery of a film like The Dark Knight.

It's relative indeed, but this reframing allows Serkis to attain a smidgen more dramatic heft than its synthetic, charmless 2016 predecessor, a confounding hit that succeeded only in underlining how little mass audiences now expect from their blockbusters. (Anything that reminds us of childhood will apparently do.) He had far more time in which to arrive at them, but Serkis makes better choices than Jon Favreau did there, starting with the wide-eyed Chand as a more androgynous and persuasively feral Mowgli than the lab-reared brat Disney thrust into the jungle. It makes sense to cast Freida Pinto as this film's equivalent of the village girl who caused so much heartache at the end of the '67 animation: who wouldn't want to return to civilisation with someone like her waiting for you? And Serkis's experience in the field has resulted in far more sensitive and nuanced voice casting than the celeb-chasing Favreau went in for two years ago. The filmmaker himself makes for a bullish Cockney Baloo, closer to Burt Young in Rocky than Bill Murray's reading, gruffly training up his lightweight charge; Cumberbatch gives a half-decent George Sanders impersonation; and it's a nice touch that Peter Mullan should do all the barking as the leader of the wolfpack. (Though you'll obviously have to make peace with the fact a creature native to the wilds of India is speaking in English with a broad Glaswegian growl.)

If Mowgli still feels underwhelming, that's again down to how 21st century filmmakers have habitually cut Kipling's tale from its roots and retooled it for meaningless action and spectacle over and above all else. This script, credited to Christa Kloves, devotes almost its entire first hour to finding excuses for the hero to run through the jungle, first for fun, then in competition, then for his life. The VFX artists try to vary these setpieces, but there was never that much variation to be achieved. This may be a problem for Imaginarium to address in the years hence: Mowgli is so specifically engineered to showcase technical wizardry that the human element rather gets left behind; it's so hellbent on canonising its protagonist as a vine-swinging, foe-besting superhero that it forgets, as Kipling and Walt Disney never did, that he is also just a boy. The emphasis placed on movement rather than growth - the wheeling out of green screens, the constant, not unskilful wrangling of pixels - means that nothing about Serkis's telling has a chance to stick in your head: at the end of its breathless ninety minutes, you don't even come away with a tune to whistle on the walk back to the car park. There's fitful distraction here - and a melancholy sense that, had it not been pipped so comprehensively to the post, there might have been more besides - but my line remains the same as it was back in 2016. If you do need a film of The Jungle Book, dial up the '67 version, and if you need a back-up, go seek out Sabu.

Mowgli is now streaming on Netflix.

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