If “The Jungle Book” is Disney transmuting Rudyard Kipling’s natural world into a fantasia of wonder, personality and song, Andy Serkis’ adaptation “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” — named for the wolf-raised man-cub at the heart of these stories — is an animalistic cage match: The law of this movie wilderness is, simply, kill or be killed, and be careful who you trust. Who has time to sing about necessities?
Filmed more than three years ago for Warner Bros. but held back to steer clear of the Jon Favreau-directed 2016 blockbuster, “Mowgli” arrives via Netflix like the edgier, seen-it-all stepsibling of the Disney movies: unafraid of death and blood and ready to grapple with the queasy legacy of Kipling’s colonial allegory while serving up celebrity-voiced animals, immersive scenery and effects wizardry blended with Serkis’ performance-capture acumen as actor and director.
Of course, that makes this version, written by Callie Kloves, closer in tone to the visceral impact of Kipling’s prose. The abiding darkness and occasionally graphic visuals will likely reduce its appeal as talking-critter family fare — think growling nighttime campfire tale instead of sun-dappled spectacle — but it makes for a welcome swerve from the Mouse House’s fun-zone approach to these timeless stories.
For one thing, in this pressurized paradise, a mixture of South African locations and blue-screen studio work, more than a few of the CGI creatures have matted, distressed fur, irritable temperaments, crinkled whiskers and buzzing flies. These are combat veterans, not cuddly companions. The bear Baloo (Serkis, channeling Bob Hoskins) is now a Cockney-accented drill sergeant type instead of the 1967 cartoon version’s amiable crooner. Mowgli’s panther pal Bagheera (Christian Bale) turns vicious toward his man-cub protégé as a way of scaring him straight about making it in the wolf pack. And though marked by an angelic face right at home in a kiddie movie, Rohan Chand’s Mowgli is a mud-streaked, stringy-haired boy with nasty scars, more content playing feral wild child than upright human.
The screenplay hews to the familiar trajectory of discovered child, wolf pack apprenticeship, Mowgli’s exile and an ultimate showdown with the menacing tiger Shere Khan, ominously purred by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose angular features are noticeable and eerily villainized for the big cat’s furry visage. Other actors’ faces have been incorporated as well, including Bale’s with Bagheera’s, and Tom Hollander’s with a creepy hyena (changed from a jackal in the book). The effect is expressionistically bold and just off-putting enough to work, and yet thankfully Cate Blanchett’s appearance isn’t detectable in her foreboding snake, Kaa. (Peter Mullan and Naomie Harris voice parenting wolf leaders Akela and Nisha.)
For a story originally designed to soft-sell colonialism, a nearly all-white voice cast in this day and age is a head-scratcher, even if the performances, attendant physicality aside, deliver the aural woof and weight of a long-lost British radio drama. But in other ways, fleshed out through a white British hunter character played by Matthew Rhys, the costs of invasion are given their due: The sweep of encountering a majestic elephant is offset by its man-severed tusk and later a moment in which Mowgli, kept in a cage in the humans’ village, hears the tinny strains of Edward Elgar’s “Imperial March” and starts screaming. Conversely, when a friendly village woman (Freida Pinto) introduces Mowgli to a powder-strewn Indian festival of vivid color, music and dance — the spring celebration known as Holi — he looks deliriously happy. That is, until the reality of his connection to the animal kingdom forces his view of humans to change once again.
These aren’t subtle strokes, but they at least attempt to realign a canonical tale of cross-cultural otherness with the fault lines of a troubled history. If you were raised on the swing and savvy of “The Jungle Book,” and introduced your children to it with both Disney films, consider “Mowgli” the movie equivalent of a whiskey chaser after a sugary shake. Just be Bagheera-wise, parents, about when you administer the dose.
‘Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle’
Rated: PG-13, for intense sequences of action violence, some bloody images and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: Starts Thursday, iPic Westwood; also streaming on Netflix