Movie review: ‘Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle’ tangles dark and dull despite stunning visuals

(Courtesy of Netflix)

Immersed in the mighty jungle of Andy Serkis’ new film, no one will sleep tonight.

Completely swerving Disney’s playful approach, Netflix brought audiences a darker adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” merging live-action and motion-picture animation that vividly bring the animal kingdom to life. The film follows Mowgli (Rohan Chand), a man-cub raised by wolves who has been stripped of his identity and seeks to find his place in the jungles of India. Throughout the film, he withstands pressure and physical tests of skill in order to gain entry into the wolf pack and later fight the evil tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch).

“Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” is based on the well-known children’s story, but its target audience remains unclear. The slow pace is seemingly tailored toward an adult crowd but fails to be captivating, while the violence and dark intentions sprinkled throughout are clearly not for the eyes of a child. The film attempts to bring the children’s story to a mature-level audience, but instead leaves the viewer in a confusing state between dozing off and tensing with discomfort.

A majority of the film contrasts dark violence with beautiful, colorful landscapes. There are often disturbing sights such as a dead cow streaked with raw blood that attracts a swarm of buzzing flies, or a tense moment of a scorpion climbing on Mowgli’s face, almost stinging him. These graphic images are certainly jarring compared to the overflow of breathtaking jungle shots. While the disturbing images bring realism to the jungle’s portrayal, they also have the potential to startle a viewer who is more accustomed to the children’s storybook version.

Although the artistic landscape shots are a bit lengthy, they force the spectator to appreciate nature’s subtle beauty – such as the sun reflecting off of a vibrant beetle suspended in the air, or Mowgli’s inquisitive eyes peeking out from his dirt-crusted face. The music, or lack thereof, also has a similar effect in scenes in which silence really forces the spectator to hone in on subtle ambient buzzing sounds of various insects. However, such scenes take up a lot of time, causing the plot to drag on longer than it needs to. Removing many of the slow-motion and lengthy shots could help the spectator maintain their attention toward a film that begs for a more riveting plot line.

But there is one thing the film’s visual affects ensure: The connection between animal characters and the human Mowgli becomes as believable as it can get between reality and animation. For the most part, the cast does a solid job of infusing life into the animated characters. The fearsome villain tiger, Shere Khan, becomes even more frightening with Cumberbatch’s threatening articulation of speech. While Kaa, the python, hypnotizes listeners with riddles and mystery through Cate Blanchett’s sinister tone.

Meanwhile, Chand also does a remarkable job portraying Mowgli as the energetic, adventure-seeking boy whose greatest desire is to fit in among the animals of the jungle. Mowgli’s relationship with the animals is certainly touching at times, with Bagheera (Christian Bale), the panther, treating Mowgli as a son by guiding him through the jungle and reminding him that he is special in his own way.

Although a majority of the cast effectively humanizes the animal roles, Serkis as Baloo hardly reminds the viewer of the fun, lovable bear introduced in the original Disney animation. Instead, he captures the image of an old, gruff and sometimes aggressive mentor who pushes Mowgli to his limits. Instead of singing songs about “Bare Necessities” and floating lazily down the river, Baloo often loses his temper and growls at Mowgli in order to push him towards success. Although fitting to the film’s grittier take, Baloo’s character is likely to cause frustration amongst viewer’s who prefer Disney’s beloved bear.

Aside from the cliche coming-of-age lessons Mowgli learns along the way, the beautiful visuals, cinematic shots and unexpectedly dark turns are a ray of sunlight for the film. And Mowgli’s search for his identity is an interesting exploration into the boundaries between man and animal, leaving the viewer to think about where the child truly belongs.

But despite offering a different interpretation of Kipling’s story, the gritty version takes the lighthearted fun out of the jungle with its mediocre attempt at a serious film for more mature audiences.

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