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Movie Review: Mowgli - Legend of the Jungle

Mowgli is a singularly unpleasant experience

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle
Directed by Andy Serkis
On Netflix

Mowgli is a singularly unpleasant film. It's not without its charms, though. Rohan Chand's performance as Mowgli is full of depth and charm. Some of the voice performances are fine and serviceable and emotive. And Michael Seresin's cinematography is occasionally up to the standards of his previous work in the two Matt Reeves' Planet of the Apes movies, or his work on Gravity. The screenplay has moments of bringing the source material to a modern audience. Freida Pinto is in it. And if you want to give small children nightmares and years of therapy, this is the Jungle Book movie for you. 

Consider for a moment that Mowgli began filming before Jon Favreau's 2016 Jungle Book. And consider that Mowgli's original release date was October, 2016. And consider that during production there was much clickity-clack on the internet about the motion capture technology that was used to meld the actors' performances with the animated creatures. Now consider that Mowgli's creature effects looks, well, unfinished. In the best moments the melding of actors' faces with CGI animals is distracting. In its worst moments the animals look like rejects from 1996' The Island of Dr. Moreau. There are moments in Mowgli when the wolves feel like something created for The Day After Tomorrow but with the added horror of an actor's face sitting just under the surface. 

When 2016's Jungle Book was released one of the one of its many accomplishments was creating a panther that looked like Ben Kingsley, a tiger that looked like Idris Elba, a wolf that looked like Lupita Nyong'o, a gigantopithecus that looked like Christopher Walken, a bear that looked like Bill Murray. But it wasn't distracting and, for the most part, audiences didn't notice it until repeated viewings or if they saw the promotional material. The animators on that telling of Rudyard Kipling's stories created something subtle and nuanced and kind of beautiful in their creature designs. The animators working on Mowgli, instead of creating creatures that are subtle, created creatures that are unsettling and often ugly. It's not a panther that looks like Christian Bale, it's a panther with Christian Bale's face kind of duct taped to the ones and zeroes. It's an idea of performance capture that, when it works right, can achieve something shocking and wonderful like the Planet of the Apes trilogy, or  Smaug from The Hobbit trilogy. When done wrong, it looks like the end product of mating a special effects package bought at a church flea market with the nightmares of small children. 

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that Mowgli is a singularly ugly film.

And it doesn't begin and end with the critters. One of the things to watch out for in a CGI heavy film is the amount of effects heavy scenes that take place in the dark. When good people do good work, you have things like most Marvel movies or the Lord of the Rings films. The most CGI heavy moments take place in unforgiving sunlight. The filmmakers and their teams of animators and programers and engineers are confident enough in their work to let it all show. When good people do bad work, you have things like Spider-Man: Homecoming, where the majority of the climax takes place in the dark. And you have Mowgli where entire sequences happens with little to no light. The more ones and zeroes on the screen the darker the screen does not equal a good time. 

Which brings me to my biggest complaint about Mowgli. I can forgive darkness to hide bad CGI, I can forgive bad CGI, I can forgive cast members doing line readings while looking at their phone. If the film is fun. If a film is fun most audiences will forgive a grocery list of cinematic sins. If a film is not fun, everything is on the table for public shaming. And Mowgli is a singularly joyless film. It is a gloomy and unhappy film. While removing most of the colonial garbage from Kipling's stories, the screenwriter accidentally removed all the stuff that makes these stories so popular. There is no joy in Mowgli, there is no humour, there is no fun. 

I can't guess who Mowgli was made for, who the target audience is. It's way too dark for children, it lacks anything that would appeal to a younger audience. It's almost feels like filmmaking as technical exercise, with the important stuff an afterthought. The important stuff being story, plot, fun, joy. The directing is pedestrian at best, with many single head shots of talking, talking, talking. 

Someone somewhere will make the claim that this particular telling is the most loyal ever to the stories. And someone somewhere will be wrong, wrong, wrong. You could check off all of the boxes, hit every plot point and beat. You could cut and paste dialogue, you could map out the character arcs to ensure they match the source material. But if you remove the joy you remove the soul. Especially with an adventure story like this. And Mowgli, truly, has no joy, no soul, no fun. It's a fantasy story of a kid raised in a jungle by wolves and a bear and a panther. He has a tiger hunting him and monkeys harassing him and a snake as old as the jungle and stuff and things happen and yet we spend what feels like hours watching wolves have town hall meetings that follow Robert's Rules of Order. 

And then there's the script. Maybe it's the editing. I don't know who to blame. But it feels like there are chunks of story missing. Characters show up in a manner that suggests they were there all along but, really, this is the first time I've seen this albino wolf and who is he and why is the movie acting like I should know who he is when he's a creation of the movie? 

Like I said up top, the film is not without its charms. Rohan Chand's performance is charming and has depth beyond his years. Naomie Harris and Tom Hollander and Benedict Cumberbatch deliver some strong performances. And Freida Pinto is in it. Unfortunately she has so little to do she hopefully wasn't on set for more than an afternoon. And Michael Seresin makes some of the film look strong with colours that pop. There is a sequence set during Holi, the festival of colours, that is among the film's few reasons for existing. It is a lovely sequence and the colours feel alive. 

But, overall, Mowgli is a singularly unpleasant film. From the unfinished creature effects to the adult darkness, this is a film that is best avoided. Unless you want to give small children nightmares and years of therapy. Then go for it.