You can be forgiven for not expecting much out of Netflix’s new Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. The film, inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s jungle adventure tales, was shot in 2015 for a 2016 release but then delayed by Warner Bros. because of 2016’s other CGI-animal Kipling extravaganza, Jon Favreau’s Disney smash The Jungle Book. Word was this would be a dark take on Kipling, more law-of-the-jungle brutal than “Bare Necessities” chill. Mowgli’s director, Andy Serkis, may be the actor-king of motion-capture performance, but he cut his teeth handling second-unit footage on Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies, filming orc-vs.-dwarf smash-ups that, while inventive, may as well have been scored to the sound of J.R.R. Tolkien weeping. Warner Bros. was so spooked by the project that Serkis’ debut as a feature director, the chipper life-with-paralysis biopic Breathe, entered production after this Mowgli — and hit theaters well over a year ago.
At some point, the studio gave up, and now Mowgli swings over to Netflix, where damaged-goods studio castoffs like The Cloverfield Paradox get treated as events. But here’s the good news: I found Mowgli magnificent, a spirited pulp extravaganza of surprising thematic weight. The first few scenes are at times unpromising, especially an impromptu meeting of talking wolves and bears and big cats on what looks like the coronation rock from The Lion King. But once its story (written by Callie Kloves) takes hold, the movie purrs right along — until it builds in its last third to a pained, powerful roar. Like its hero, it’s caught between childhood play and the vicious reality of life as a hunter.
The setup is the same as usual. Feral human boy Mowgli (played with snarling buoyancy by Rohan Chand) must learn the law of the jungle from his animated animal pals. They include the black panther Bagheera (Christian Bale), the laid-back brown bear Baloo (Serkis) and that python with its own mysterious agenda, Kaa (Cate Blanchett). This time, though, the lessons are urgent, the jungle threatened by man, the wicked tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) a true terror vowing to one day taste that boy’s blood. Early on, Shere Khan menaces Mowgli as the boy swims in a jungle pond. Mowgli is diving when he spies the beast spying him, its furred and fanged visage wavery from the boy’s perspective. As our hero holds his breath and panics, Shere Khan spits a gout of gore into the water, fouling it, not just marking his prey but making the boy steep in that foulness.
Serkis, of course, played Gollum and King Kong for Jackson, and he seems to have picked up that director’s best habits (compositions emphasizing the mythic, a rigorous clarity of action even as the camera wheels about, an inventive sadism) but not his bad ones (that relentless zeal to overstuff, overstate, over-dazzle). The film’s first half builds to a trial Mowgli must complete to become a full member of the pack of wolves that has adopted him. He must prove he is predator rather than prey by dashing through the jungle with the other cubs without getting caught by Bagheera. The ensuing chase traverses cliffs and canopy and gnarled root systems, with Mowgli in a mad scramble; it’s a perfect Steven Spielbergian lulu, endlessly complex but also always clear, always tense, always unpredictable, the kind of sequence that invites laughter and screams. It stands up there with anything in this year’s excellent Mission: Impossible but might be better because the character is someone who is actually vulnerable — someone whose fate we might actually care about. (The animals, it almost goes without saying these days, move convincingly, mostly look photo-real and always seem fully present onscreen in their scenes with the boy.)
Like many of the best children’s films, Serkis’ Mowgli is a bit much. It’s too scary, too bloody, more frank about death and killing than adults tend to be comfortable with. Here’s a Jungle Book film where Mowgli gets taught early on by Bagheera that a true hunter only kills when necessary — and owes its prey the decency of looking it in the eyes as it dies. Yes, Mowgli will have to kill, too, and I’m still trying to shake off one late-film shock featuring the movie’s lone Disney-style cutesy sidekick.
Mowgli also differs from too many kids’ adventure films in that its creators have actually thought through what all its hurly-burly means. As in David Yates’ 2016 The Legend of Tarzan, the filmmakers have committed themselves to interrogating the nastiest cultural assumptions underlying their source material. They do so with some fury, especially to the character of the great white hunter (Matthew Rhys) who might, when he first appears, seem like a heroic figure. Meanwhile, Mowgli is part human and part wolf, and the script suggests that those identities might be irreconcilable — and that it’s his responsibility to try to honor both. Mowgli faces tougher choices, here, than most movie heroes ever do, and young Chand, smeared in mud and blood, makes the wolf-boy’s wild emotions not just legible but persuasive. The ugly work he must set himself to in the final scenes surprised me even as it seemed inevitable, the only solution.
Let’s just say it: Serkis’ Mowgli is wonderful, as thoughtful as it is sensational. It may appear slightly old-fashioned compared to the mash-up wonders of the upcoming Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but it towers over almost every other adventure film from this year or any other.