Deep Impact and Armageddon. Volcano and Dante’s Peak. Capote and Infamous. Hollywood history is sprinkled with many strange cases in which two films based on the same subject have been developed, produced and released in relatively close proximity to each other, often with one overshadowing the other at least in terms of success and awareness, if not necessarily quality. And now the tale of Mowgli, the little boy raised by wolves and living among the animals of the jungle in Rudyard Kipling’s classic Jungle Book stories, can join that club with Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, the second movie in two years to tackle Kipling’s work.
The first was Disney’s The Jungle Book, a 2016 adaptation that also served as a live-action/CG remake of the Mouse House’s own 1967 animated version. At the same time as that film was being developed (around 2012), Warner Bros. Pictures inexplicably began to develop its own take on the public domain material, called at the time Jungle Book: Origins. That project passed through the hands of a number of directors, including Steve Kloves, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Ron Howard, before Andy Serkis — the performance capture genius known for his portrayals of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and Caesar in the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy — landed the job.
In the meantime, The Jungle Book came out and was a massive worldwide hit, grossing nearly $1 billion. Jungle Book: Origins had its name changed to Mowgli (now with Legend of the Jungle added) and had its initial 2016 release date pushed back to both give the extensive effects work more time for completion and move it away from the Disney behemoth. Eventually Warner Bros. decided to drop the picture entirely and sell it off — with streaming giant Netflix ready to open its checkbook and pick up the movie.
All of this preamble is necessary because it’s pretty much impossible to review Mowgli without the context of how it came about. And the truth of the matter is that seeing what is more or less the same story retold again just two years after seeing The Jungle Book cannot help but have an impact on the way one views Serkis’ admittedly accomplished film. Yet while the approach is somewhat different, so many of the filmmaking tools and basic narrative ideas are too similar, with Serkis’s film suffering only because it came out second.
In both films, the infant christened Mowgli (played here with great emotional intensity by Rohan Chand) is adopted by the wolf pack led by Akela (voiced by Peter Mullan) and Nisha, a.k.a. Raksha (Naomie Harris) and trained to live among them as a wolf cub. He is also mentored and tutored in the ways of the jungle by a black panther named Bagheera (Christian Bale) and a bear named Baloo (Serkis). But his integration into the realm of the animals is opposed by the vicious Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), resulting in a series of actions that may lead Mowgli back to the human world whether he likes it or not.
More emphasis is placed in Serkis’ movie on Mowgli’s return to the humans, where he is taken in by John Lockwood (a version of Kipling’s father played by Matthew Rhys) and briefly adopted by Messua (Frieda Pinto), and where the conflict between his two natures is more forcefully and emotionally rendered than in the light-hearted Disney version. In fact, everything in Mowgli has much greater stakes: whereas Baloo in the earlier film was voiced genially and humorously by Bill Murray, Serkis gives the character much more gravitas here and puts him and Bagheera more directly at odds over determining the course of Mowgli’s future.
Mowgli is also decidedly a PG-13 film and may not be suitable for children under the age of 10. The Jungle Book had its scary scenes and Shere Khan is a malevolent presence in both, but violence and death are a much more palpable part of the world that Serkis presents. If any film that basically spends most of its time with talking CG animals can be described as “gritty” and “realistic,” the director has certainly done his best to make that picture.
The elongated post-production time seems to have paid off: with a handful of exceptions in some early scenes, the CG work here is spectacular. Bagheera, the wolves and Baloo are rendered extremely well, and there are scenes involving all the other animals in the jungle that are quite striking. The mix of location and setbound shooting also works seamlessly, although some scenes come across as almost too dark (the otherwise lovely cinematography is by Michael Seresin, who also shot large numbers of CG animals in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes).
There is no question that Serkis, his excellent voice cast (which also includes Cate Blanchett as the snake Kaa, drawing out each syllable in hair-raising fashion) and his crew have poured considerable effort and heart into this film. But the bottom line is that, if you saw The Jungle Book, there’s not a whole lot of reason to sit through the story again — changed in some ways though it may be.
Diehard fans of Kipling’s work may find some interest in comparing and contrasting the two, but parents with younger children may want to stay away from this one. If you did see the Disney film two years ago and decide to watch this one, your mileage may vary; both have their pleasures. But Serkis’ version has the distinct disadvantage of being the second one to contend for the public’s attention. Everyone knows there’s only one king of the jungle — and in this case it’s a mouse.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle will be released in select theaters this Thursday (November 29) and will premiere worldwide on Netflix on Friday, December 7.