On the surface of it, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Andy Serkis. It can’t be easy keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. To trust yourself when all studio execs doubt you. To wait and wait and not be tired by waiting. And, in the end, to watch the things you’ve given your life to be broken, having built them up with cutting-edge tools.
This is the harsh reality of life as a Hollywood director, as Serkis knows all-too well now that his years-in-the-making passion project has been
unceremoniously dumped sold to Netflix. Originally slated for a late 2016 release, Serkis’ The Jungle Book, otherwise known by the blandly generic title Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, was delayed due to production issues which are too myriad and mundane to go into here, but reportedly include a bloated script and escalating budget.
Warner Bros were apparently also worried about the film’s proximity to Disney’s rival live-action animation and, watching it, you can understand their trepidation. Because Serkis’ version seems like a slapdash folly next to Jon Favreau’s spectacular adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s cherished collected stories, which proved a huge hit with both audiences and critics two years ago. There’s barely a narrative detail, technical trick or casting choice that doesn’t seem in some way derivative of (and inferior to) Favreau’s film – to give a quick example, where Scarlett Johansson brought a certain serpentine sultriness to Kaa, Cate Blanchett’s take on the character sounds like Galadriel with a throat infection.
When he signed on to make this his directorial debut (it has since been superseded by Breathe, a handsome romantic drama you would never guess was by the same filmmaker), Serkis promised to put a darker spin on the source material. Not taking the easy or obvious route when reinterpreting a classic text should always be commended, but the upshot of Serkis’ comparatively serious vision is a dreary, joyless trudge through familiar narrative terrain.
The first hour is a mad-dash recap of the story we know, with Mowgli (Rohan Chand) being taught the ways of the jungle by Bagheera (Christian Bale), Baloo (Serkis himself) and his adoptive wolf pack, before eventually facing off against the fearsome Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch). Strangely, the concept of jungle law is introduced not as an ancient set of spiritual guidelines but a binding constitution to be enforced and obeyed at all times by every living creature. It’s all rather heavy going and, consequently, not much fun.
For the final 45 minutes, Serkis and first-time screenwriter Callie Kloves take things in an unexpected direction, as Mowgli leaves the jungle behind and soon finds himself being educated in the ways of man by a comely village woman (Freida Pinto) and a booze-addled hunter (Matthew Rhys). From here the film builds towards a dramatic finale where our young hero’s two worlds collide in predictably violent fashion.
The two most striking images in the film involve Mowgli’s skin being stained red: first as an infant following a fateful run-in with Shere Khan; second during Holi, India’s annual ‘festival of colour’, when the eponymous man-cub’s eyes are opened for the first time to the wonders of humanity. Yet moments of visual inspiration and symbolic clarity are fleeting in this aesthetically and tonally uneven coming-of-age adventure.
Throughout the film Serkis makes some astonishingly ill-judged creative decisions, not least of which is the use of performance-capture technology. When combined with high-grade digital animation – as in Peter Jackson’s King Kong and Lord of the Rings series, as well as the recent Planet of the Apes prequels, the success of which Serkis was instrumental in – the effect can be breathtaking and immersive. In this case, however, matching the actors’ facial expressions and features to their animal avatars produces distractingly uncanny results.
Then there’s the director’s own dubious voiceover work, which turns The Jungle Book’s most beloved character into a decidedly un-cuddly, menacing presence. Last time we checked, snakes don’t have full lips, and it’s probably safe to assume that Kipling didn’t envision Baloo as a surly cockney.