Let’s pretend for a moment that Disney didn’t just release a “live-action” remake of its 1967 “The Jungle Book” two years ago (technically, the new version was computer animated, but photoreal enough not to be classified among the cartoons). In a world without such competition, “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” might have seemed like a good idea: a darker, decidedly non-Disney approach to Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories about a boy raised by wild animals deep in the Indian forest. It may even have excited some people to know that performance-capture prodigy Andy Serkis was tackling the project as his directorial debut — one complicated enough that his second feature, “Breathe,” actually beat it to screens.
But Disney did release “The Jungle Book,” and that movie was a big, big hit, followed by the seemingly inevitable announcement of a sequel. Now, the best that Serkis’ “Mowgli” movie can hope for is possibly being mistaken for director Jon Favreau’s still-in-development followup (he decided to make “The Lion King” first). Still, as a massive-budgeted tentpole now available for streaming at home, “Mowgli” should drive enough curiosity among Netflix subscribers — for that is the graveyard where this would-be blockbuster, originally dubbed “Jungle Book: Origins” and intended to launch a full-blown “The Lord of the Rings”-style trilogy, is now laid to rest — that it could attract at least as many viewers as, say, the streaming service’s “Benji” reboot earlier this year.
The difference, of course, is that “Benji” starred real animals, whereas the only creatures harmed in the making of “Mowgli” were of the computer-generated variety. And that, it turns out, was a terrible idea. Serkis’ approach means that bona fide movie stars such as Christian Bale and Benedict Cumberbatch not only voiced their characters but submitted to the whole performance capture rigmarole, whereby their every facial expression is mapped onto the heads of otherwise photorealistic animals. Pause the film on any scene, and you’ll see creatures with overlarge, hyper-detailed heads grafted onto weirdly out-of-focus bodies (it’s as if the visual effects team is forcing your attention onto the faces by not-so-subtly blurring anything else you might want to examine).
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Although Kipling himself clearly approved of anthropomorphizing the animals, this creepy visual interpretation couldn’t have been what he had in mind, where familiar actors’ faces have been stretched and mapped onto a variety of different species, creating a weird fun house-mirror effect. If you’ve ever wanted to see what Cate Blanchett looks like as a snake — or rather, what a snake might look like, if it could move its eyes and mouth like Cate Blanchett — this is your chance. Otherwise, it’s an unfortunate not-quite-ready-for-showtime experiment that does far more to distract from the story than it adds.
Presumably, the virtual characters have been designed thus to ensure the actors’ subtlest micro-expressions won’t be lost on audiences. Except, apart from Serkis and his son Louis Ashbourne Serkis (who plays a cutie-patootie wolf pup named Bhoot), none of the cast is familiar with the kind of pantomime-style overacting this technology requires.
Kipling’s novel has been adapted often enough that audiences know the basic beats: Mowgli (played by scrawny human actor Rohan Chand) is orphaned and abandoned, raised by wolves (led here by Peter Mullan), mentored by black panther Bagheera (Christian Bale) and a bear named Baloo (Serkis awards himself the best role, playing it like some kind of half-soused Cockney war veteran), threatened by the vicious tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), and destined to choose between returning to human society or continuing to live among the animals.
The film starts dark, as primitive-looking humans run in panic from a brutal tiger attack, while Blanchett’s serpentine Kaa offers a hypnotic prologue that sounds a bit too much like the ethereal setup she delivered as Galadriel in “The Lord of the Rings.” Shere Khan pounces, presumably killing a mother and child, until Bagheera shows up to rescue the blood-spattered infant in the next scene. There’s something clumsy in this opening, where we can’t be sure it’s even the same baby that survived, but it hardly matters.
Humans disappear for the better part of the movie, which functions like an over-extended training/coming-of-age montage, until such time that Mowgli is brutally captured and caged by the human hunter Lockwood (Matthew Rhys). It’s a little too obvious that the clunky script from Callie Kloves (daughter of “Harry Potter” scribe and “Mowgli” producer Steve Kloves) is drawing out the story’s first act to feature length, which would be fine if the interactions between all these wonderful characters were as memorable as they were in previous tellings.
Instead, Mowgli and his animal buddies are upstaged at every turn by the meticulously rendered landscapes, which mix real foliage with magic-hour set extensions for a seemingly endless succession of iconic shots — sunset-backed silhouettes, moments of waterside contemplation and countless bursting-through-the-jungle poses — in which nothing of particular narrative interest is taking place.
It’s a familiar mistake in overly ambitious but under-written studio productions, where the excitement to forge ahead fails to invest the necessary energy at the script stage. And so we get a confused rehash of a beloved story, in which both people and animals are portrayed as cruel, and where Mowgli’s central dilemma of which society to join in the end feels like a choice between the lesser of two evils. (Even the wolves, who see the man-cub as one of their own, engage in a brutal ritual that reveals them to be no better than the humans they fear.) The film is not without spectacle, but it is strangely without soul. That would’ve made it a disappointment to anyone buying a movie ticket, but perhaps at home, it will make for a more welcome distraction.