As much as the cast and crew of Netflix’s Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle excited me before I watched the film, the feeling it left me with after was that of disenchantment. As someone who has grown up in India reading Rudyard Kipling's classic tale of friendship and belonging, I simply loved Disney’s 2016 live-action version of the Jungle Book. It had all the right ingredients to qualify as one of the best adaptations of Mowgli’s story, including great visual effects that made the jungle come alive on the big screen. Netflix and Warner Bros’ Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle fails on all those accounts. I am not sure if a darker retelling of the story was the right treatment for the film which sees Mowgli, shunned by the jungle, return to a white man’s version of an Indian village. There is no playfulness in Director Andy Serkis’ version of Mowgli and that seems to have made this film drab and not a very family-friendly. The almost brutal treatment Mowgli gets in the film when he is kidnapped by a group of monkeys is hard to watch as an adult so one can’t imagine this would make kids feel very comfortable.
The jungle animals played by Christian Bale (Bagheera), Benedict Cumberbatch (Shere Khan), Andy Serkis (Baloo) and Cate Blanchett (Kaa) all have great voice acting behind the animated characters, but they somehow don’t look as great as I thought they would. Actor Rohan Chand who dons the character of Mowgli deserves a shoutout for the perseverance with which he has acted the demanding role. In an interview ahead of the premiere of the film in Mumbai, the young actor told me that he actually observed and studied wolves to mould his character, and if nothing else, his efforts have paid off in making him look the part.
While the film’s promotions left me wanting to see some great performance capture in play, all I saw on screen was something that looked like a rushed VFX job. When it comes to visual effects, there are times when the animals look disproportionate to Mowgli (played by Rohan Chand) in the frame. These inconsistencies take away from the impact the creators were hoping to make.
The only other two human leads in the film - Matthew Rhys as John Lockwood, the hunter and Freida Pinto as Messua - are seen in the village sequences of the film and appear only in the second half. While Rhys still finds screen time as Mowgli’s hunting instructor cum evil wildlife hunter who kills innocent animals for thrills, Pinto barely manages to get a dialogue out in the whole movie. She is seen as the soft, accepting village woman who takes in a scorned Mowgli when he runs away from the Jungle, but her character in the film is not established well enough for audiences to feel its importance. Although director Andy Serkis promised us a non-whitewashed version of the story, the entire village sequence seemed poorly researched. The villagers are seen celebrating some generic festival, with a lot of Indian stereotypes thrown in the mix. As an Indian, this was a bit off-puting for me.
With the disparity between the first half which is all about Mowgli and the jungle, and the second, which sees him enter the village, It feels like two movies mashed into one. Netflix has given us much better content to watch in the past and If you skip this one, you won’t be missing much.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle releases on Netflix on December 7.