MOWGLI, UK, 2018. Starring Rohan Chand, Matthew Rhys, Freida Pinto. Voices of: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Naomie Harris, Andy Serkis, Peter Mullan, Jack Raynor, Eddie Marsan, Tom Hollander, Louis Ashbourne Serkis. Directed by Andy Serkis. 104 minutes. Rated M (Sense of threat and menace).
Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book stories have been a popular source for films over many decades. Sabu appeared in 1942. There was the very cheerful Disney animated feature in 1967. There was a live-action remake in 2015 by Jon Favreau, featuring voices for the animals from a wide-ranging star-list.
Now here is another live-action interpretation of Kipling. It was directed by Andy Serkis, certainly drawing on his vast experience in bringing animals and characters to the screen, going back to his appearances as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, to his work with Peter Jackson on King Kong, to his appearances as Caesar in the new series of Planet of the Apes films. (Serkis also takes the opportunity to do some voice acting as Baloo, the Bear.)
This is quite a superior version of the Jungle Book stories. And, it is more rugged than the previous versions. It brings to the screen dramatic evidence of the law of the jungle, and, especially, nature “red in tooth and claw”. The film received a more adult classification, highlighting the sense of menace. And the menace is certainly there. Which means then that this version may not be suitable for younger children, probably too frightening, but it may mean that audiences who enjoyed the stories in the past but have now grown up may well appreciate the stronger themes and messages about humans and animals.
Rohan Chand seems perfect for the 10 year-old Mowgli, abandoned in the jungle, rescued by the Panther, Bagheera (voice, Christian Bale) from the malevolent tiger, Shere Khan (voice, Benedict Cumberbatch). In fact, Rohan Chand is from New York City, appeared first as Adam Sandler’s son in Jack and Jill and has had considerable experience in films like The Hundred Foot Journey, Lone Survivor, and the Jumanji remake. No trouble for him to be so convincing acting in front of the green screen, often interacting with unseen animals.
And the animals, animatronic and not always looking absolutely realistic, are quite convincing, many seen in the assembly to accept Mowgli into the community as a man-cub wolf, genial training from Baloo, severe testing by Bagheera, endurance tests in running with the wolves, playful scenes with little monkeys tempting Mowgli with fruit. There is a genial aspect of the bonding with the various animals despite the ominous threats from Shere Khan and his giggling hyena associate.
Eventually, Mowgli will have two join the human race, something he is quite unwilling to do. In his captive cage, he gets a wise explanation from Bagheera who had spent his own time in a cage as a human pet. Matthew Rhys is a hunter who has encountered Shere Khan but has also damaged the tusk of an elephant. This all comes to quite a dramatic head as Mowgli, now armed with a knife, confronts Shere Khan, supported by rifle shots from the Hunter. And nature comes full cycle with the charge of the elephant whose task was broken.
There is rather an idealistic picture of the human community going about their tasks, their bonding, their finally accepting Mowgli. The screenplay is suggesting that, allowing for nature red in tooth and claw and human hunting, there should be mutual respect in both worlds and between the two worlds.
Mowgli certainly brings the Kipling world to life.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.