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Bear unnecessities – ‘Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle’

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Rudyard Kipling’s classic 1894 novel “The Jungle Book” has served as the inspiration for a number of films over the years. Like any good source material, it has come to the attention of multiple filmmakers looking to tell their own version of the story.

Generally, we’ve seen a new movie about once every generation. Since the early 1940s, audiences have gotten a new version of Mowgli and his jungle brethren every 20-25 years. The iconic Disney animation hit in 1967; another live-action version swung through in 1994.

But then, “The Jungle Book” fell victim to the dreaded Hollywood disease known to some as ADIMMS (Armageddon/Deep Impact Multiple Movie Syndrome); two too-similar movies released too close together. There was Disney’s CGI-laden remake in 2016, replete with an all-star voice cast and directed by Jon Favreau.

And now there’s “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” courtesy of Netflix. The streaming giant meant for this big-budget outing – a motion-capture extravaganza filled with famous voices and directed by mo-cap maestro Andy Serkis – to be a theatrical release. But circumstances (including the massive success of the Disney film from just two years prior) led to a shift in plans – a very limited big-screen turn followed by a quick turnaround to home availability.

It’s certainly a darker look for the material than we usually see. But despite that darkness – or perhaps because of it – Serkis and company lose track of the story’s soul. “Mowgli” looks great, but looks aren’t everything. It’s a beautiful package without much inside.

Mowgli (Rohan Chand, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”) has grown up in the jungle. His parents were killed by the murderous tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Grinch”) when Mowgli was just an infant. Rescued by the panther Bagheera (Christian Bale, “Hostiles”), Mowgli is taken in by a pack of wolves; despite Shere Khan’s demands for the boy’s blood, pack leader Akela (Peter Mullan, “The Vanishing”) places him under the protection of the wolves.

When Mowgli gets older, he finds himself rapidly approaching the event known as “The Running,” a wolf rite of passage where the young members of the pack must run and avoid capture; only those who successfully complete the Running may officially join the pack. Failure means exile … and for Mowgli, it may well mean doom. But despite the best efforts of Mowgli’s trainer, the bear Baloo (Andy Serkis, “Black Panther”), Mowgli might not have what it takes to pass the test.

Meanwhile, humans are slowly encroaching, claiming more and more of the jungle for their own – and thanks to the aggressive inciting actions by Shere Khan, they might start coming far faster.

Mowgli is trapped between worlds – not quite human, not quite wolf. Kaa (Cate Blanchett, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls”), the ageless python who can see both past and future, predicts big things for Mowgli … though for good or bad, she doesn’t say. It’s up to Mowgli to be strong and make the decisions that are best for both sides of his soul.

“Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” isn’t very good. The narrative is jumbled and convoluted; too often, the movie relies on our preexisting understanding of the story to keep things from going off the rails. The technological aspects – the mo-cap work, the background rendering – are very much in the forefront, detracting from everything else. But in truth, its biggest issue is the fact that the hugely successful Disney outing is still fresh in the minds of moviegoers … and “Mowgli” very much suffers in the comparison.

Look, there’s no denying that Andy Serkis carries real passion for this project – his ambition is smeared across every frame. But while passion is a good thing, it can also blind you to certain basic realities. Serkis is our preeminent practitioner of mo-cap performance, and so obviously believes in its potential, but not everyone shares his view.

In this case, the motion capture stuff is actually a little strange and borderline unsettling; mapping these well-known actors onto photorealistic animal constructs results in some weirdness. I’ll put it like this – if you ever wanted to know what Benedict Cumberbatch would look like as a tiger, then this is the movie for you.

Vocally, the performances are fine. These are all top-shelf actors. Cumberbatch, Bale, Blanchett – these are some of the best in the business right now. But they’re playing animals that actually resemble them in a frankly off-putting way. And with the exception of Serkis, who obviously has a depth of understanding that far surpasses anyone else, no one really seems to grasp the nuances of mo-cap acting; the end result is characters whose expressions feel oddly muted next to their vocalizations. Young Rohan Chand does his best, but he regularly seems a bit lost; there’s an inescapable sense of disconnect between the young actor and his jungle friends.

“Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” could have been a much better movie. It likely SHOULD have been a much better movie. But thanks to an ill-advised turn to the dark side, an overreliance on technical trickery and a general absence of the original story’s spirit, it simply doesn’t measure up. The comparisons to the much-better version from just two years ago don’t hurt, but even if that movie never existed, this one would fail to deliver.

In the end, Serkis and company failed to see the jungle for the trees.

[2 out of 5]

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