Netflix Now: Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018) - Reviewed

How many live action versions of The Jungle Book is too many? Granted, the term "live action" is used rather loosely when all of the animals are in CGI, which is the case with both Jon Favreau's 2016 Disney film and the new Netflix original movie Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. This darker re-telling of Rudyard Kipling's classic tale caused a bit of a conundrum for Warner Bros., who did everything they possibly could to separate this film from the blockbuster Disney adaptation. After intentionally delaying the film for over a year, WB made a last minute move to pull it from theaters just weeks from its release and sell it to Netflix. The strategy worked for Paramount earlier this year for The Cloverfield Paradox, though many cynics saw that particular example as a move to cut losses on a movie that would struggle to break even in theaters. How Mowgli would have done in theaters is difficult to say, but one can safely assume more people will stream it in its first week than likely would have seen it in theaters. And those who do will get a tonally different, but still entertaining, version of the story.

Mowgli is the directorial debut of motion capture wizard Andy Serkis, whose mo-cap performances as Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Caesar in the Planet of the Apes films sparked award buzz, as well as more than a few debates over whether or not mo-cap is acting. Serkis certainly stacked the deck in his favor, attracting actual award-wining talent like Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Benedict Cumberbatch to not only voice but provide mo-cap performances of the famous residents of Mowgli's presumably central Asian jungle (though he gave himself the plum role of Baloo the bear.) The serious talent on display lends itself well to the heavier tone of this iteration; even Cumberbatch, playing villainous tiger Shere Khan, forgoes hammy villain tropes in favor of being legitimately terrifying. In fact, you may want to keep the younger kids away from this one; Mowgli was set to release with a PG-13 rating, and this dark, bloody affair earns every bit of it. "The Bear Necessities" it isn't.


In the department of looks, Mowgli feels a bit disjointed. Oddly enough the CGI animals here look more cartoonish than their near-photo-realistic Disney counterparts. Though if you pay attention long enough, you'll start to recognize the facial tics and even features of the mo-capped actors behind the characters, which is a fun and likely intentional effect. The cinematography by Michael Seresin, who worked with Serkis on the last two Apes movies, is stunning, though it's hard to tell at times where the scenery ends and the CGI begins. Such an effect does lend itself quite well to Mowgli's dizzying blend of fantasy and reality. Mowgli's colorful vistas and lush jungles would have probably looked superb on a huge screen, though they'll certainly still pop on your 4K HDR TV.

Mowgli does occasionally suffer during the moments where one can tell how hard Serkis and company are trying to do their own unique (and legally distinct) thing with the material. Though as much-maligned "dark and gritty" reboots go, Mowgli packs a smart and entertaining punch. Nothing about Mowgli's darker tone ever feels wrong or uncomfortable, as such adaptations are often wont to do, making it a far better standalone experience than many of its contemporaries. Though audiences will likely find it difficult to separate the film from their Disney-fied memories, those who go into Serkis's Mowgli with an open mind are in for a thrilling and satisfying treat.

--Mike Stec