Long gestating in production hell, Andy Serkis’s Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle has the misfortune of finally premiering in the wake of Jon Favreau’s own CGI-heavy update of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, one of the most unexpected delights of recent blockbusters. Favreau’s film successfully incorporated modern live-action/animation hybrid trends with well-judged revisions to the old Disney animated film, marking one of the few times that the recent wave of live-action remakes of old cartoons has actually improved upon its inspiration. Serkis’ film thus has an uphill battle, though Mowgli represents less an attempt to rework the story as we understand it through pop culture than a return to Kipling’s original prose and, more importantly, the colonial context of his writing.

As such, Serkis establishes a darker tone from the outset, opening with a grim montage that edits out just enough explicit material of tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) killing an Indian couple who wandered too deep into the jungle. As Khan continues to savage the surrounding area, panther Bagheera (Christian Bale) comes across a bloodstained, human infant whose lack of fear causes the big cat to take pity on the child and bring it to a pack of wolves for upbringing. Here, we see intense debate over whether to look after the child. There’s no whimsy to the subject of raising a human, and even when alpha male Akela (Peter Mullan) agrees to keep the baby due to its fearlessness, he does so with a grave sense of moral obligation.

From there, the film briefly follows the usual Jungle Book structure. Now a pre-teen, Mowgli (Rohan Chand) lives and studies with various animals, from Bagheera to Akela to Baloo (Serkis). But even this material is colored by the foregrounded suspicion of humans; shunned by young wolves in his pack, Mowgli only has a friend in Bhoot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), an albino runt whose bright demeanor is his only defense against constant harassment. Compared to Favreau’s more brightly lit version, Serkis’s film is still verdant but nonetheless dim, all the light choked out by the looming forest canopy. There are no real adventures here compared to other adaptations, that fun instead replaced by the drive to survive as Bagheera and Baloo rigorously train Mowgli as Shere Khan constantly waits at the outskirts of the pack’s territory, engaging in psychological warfare to destabilize the wolves.

This is an interesting work of revisionism for those who know this story as a sanitized Disney property, but it also leaves the film largely without a sense of active movement for much of its running time. With Shere Khan’s chaos often seen only in the haunting aftermath (he makes a point of killing cows and dragging them near the wolves’ turf to lure outraged humans), there’s little to directly push the action. Furthermore, for all of Serkis’s long-standing facility with expressive and beautifully rendered motion-capture animation, Mowgli often looks a bit garish in its animal animations, with each creature violently clashing with both natural and even computer-generated backgrounds. The waxy look of the animals makes their broad expressions too cartoonish, clanging dissonantly with the more dour tone of this adaptation.

Where the film excels, though, is in Mowgli’s awkward, involuntary integration into human civilization when he is forced to live in a local village. Dropping the CGI spectacle, Serkis films actual people and locations, and the tactile quality of the village only compounds the limits suddenly placed on the once-free Mowgli. Especially resonant is the boy’s interactions with a white hunter (Matthew Rhys), who initially endears himself to Mowgli by inadvertently continuing the survival training that the child had received from Baloo and Bagheera. Yet Serkis carefully paces Mowgli’s unease with the man’s sport hunting, culminating in a truly disturbing scene in which the boy stumbles across the hunter’s trophy room, his confusion over pelts and preserved specimens slowly morphing into abject horror as he comes to term with the senseless death of it all. The scene culminates in a shock reveal so gut-wrenching that in an instant it coalesces Serkis’s attempts to reckon with both the darkness in Kipling’s work and, more crucially, the gnarled imperial exploitation that begat it, and the look of stifled but profound anguish left on Mowgli’s face is perhaps the single most powerful image in any adaptation yet made of this material.

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