Dec 15, 2018
Welcome back to the last entry in our Netflix Original catchup week, although in the time it has taken to review these films, three more films have become available. I have loved reviewing every film acquired by Netflix this year, despite a few stinkers, and because of some real gems. I don’t know if anyone else has struggled through them all, but if you want to have me on your show or podcast to discuss the Year in Netflix, reach out to me at onemoviepunch.com or over social media. It has been a long road, and I hope I can put all that viewing time to good use.
Today’s movie is “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” (2018), the Netflix Original live-action and animated film, directed by Andy Serkis and written for the screen by Callie Kloves, based on Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”. The film follows the origin story of Mowgli (Rohan Chand), a child raised by wolves in the jungles of India, who works to be accepted by the other animals. However, one tiger named Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) refuses to accept him, placing the two of them on a collision course.
Rudyard Kipling. People are divided about his work, especially as the world comes to grapple with the long-term effects of European colonization. One need only read Kipling’s poem entitled “The White Man’s Burden” to understand the lens through which he viewed the world, as one where Europe needed to bring “civilization” (whatever that means) to the world. It takes simple premises, like a boy growing up in the jungle, and endows them with subtle, yet purposeful meaning. It also doesn’t read very well as time has passed, a problem with not just Kipling, but Twain, Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and other “celebrated” white fiction writers from which so many were inspired, who also added their own subtle and not-so-subtle racist or imperialist views. I am in no way saying these works cannot be appreciated for what they are, but I am definitely saying that we are under no obligation to place those works within a historical context. We just need to be able to balance those two ideas in our mind while we appreciate their work, and not waste time denying the obvious racism and imperialism that permeated their works at the time. It also means that when we adapt these works, we need to take care to address the outdated ideas, whenever possible.
“The Jungle Book” has been adapted many, many times, for a variety of different media. The most famous adaptation is by far Disney’s 1967 animated film, that introduced so many future generations to Kipling. Disney heavily sanitized the darker elements of Kipling’s work into a musical extravaganza, one that stays well away from most socially challenging aspects. It was an effective and successful adaptation, successful enough to transform the same sanitized story into a live-action adaptation by Jon Favreau. Disney did a similar sanitized reversion of another socially complicated work for “John Carter”, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ work “A Princess of Mars”, whose protagonist was an unrepentant Confederate soldier. So, it begs the question why would Warner Bros want to make another live-action animated adaptation of Kipling’s work, and if so, what direction would they take to counteract the concerns within the source material? And how would it stave off feeling like a mockbuster remake of a Disney work?
“Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” does a pretty good job answering those questions, although not without some lingering messaging concerns. The animation is quite stunning, which from the beginning helps elevate the film well beyond b-movie/mockbuster status. It’s greatly aided by Andy Serkis as director, especially with his extensive work with motion capture, and it has an excellent cast of voices. It is a beautiful and dark film to watch, more in line with the original work of Kipling. However, I think the messaging falls a bit short to counteract the built-in racism and imperialism within the source work, no matter how much the messaging may push an ecological coexistence between man and the jungle over the steady colonization and exploitation of Indian resources, and no matter how much of a drunkard they make the English tiger hunter out to be. And that’s because Bagheera, Baloo, and Shere Khan all still represent different aspects of colonization, as Kipling intended. It’s inescapable for quite a few of these adventure books with great premises from the era, but Serkis and Kloves manage to handle most of those issues well. Just not well enough. I can only hope that further stories cleared for animation in this series can help overcome those issues even further.
“Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” (2018) is a stunningly rendered live-action adaptation of a racist and imperialist work with a clever premise. While it provides a more faithful adaptation of Kipling’s work, it also comes with some of its baggage, despite many efforts made to minimize that influence. Fans of live-action animated films, or considered fans of Kipling’s work, may appreciate this film, but may also want something more, or maybe different, from it.
Rotten Tomatoes: 54%
One Movie Punch: 7.0/10
“Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” (2018) is rated PG-13 and is currently streaming on Netflix and playing in select theaters.