Cast: Rohan Chand, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Naomie Harris
Director: Andy Serkis
Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)
In his second narrative feature as director after 2017's Breathe, actor Andy Serkis takes Rudyard Kipling stories that generations of children have grown up on and crafts an unrelentingly dark, grim story about fighting brutality, warding off fear, countering greed for power and stopping the perpetual man-animal conflict. In the bargain, he puts Mowgli's coming-of-age tale well beyond the ken of pre-teens.
Mowgli: Legend Of The Jungle is aimed at a mellower audience, young adults and grown-ups alike, given the gravity of the themes it takes up. The fact that it adapts the timeless tales for a time far more fractious than the late 19th century, when The Jungle Book was published, only adds a new layer to their appeal.
Serkis, known for his motion capture performances in the Lord Of The Rings films and the Planet Of The Apes prequel trilogy, brings his skills in, and knowledge of, the game to bear upon the film's extraordinary CGI inputs. Mowgli: Legend Of The Jungle isn't quite the kind of family viewing one expects man-cub Mowgli's adventures among a pack of wolves to be. The violence in the film is occasionally too stark and startling and the protagonist's struggle to come to terms with the world of wolves while trying to make sense of his human origins assumes a disquieting quality. But owing to the outstanding quality of the motion capture work on show, this film possesses all the heft that it needs to get its subterranean point across.
Only two and half years ago, audiences were treated to Disney's live action update of the animated The Jungle Book, which the studio made nearly half a century ago. That film, helmed by Jon Favreau, also bowed in India in Hindi, with the likes of Irrfan Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Om Puri, Nana Patekar and Shefali Shah joining the voice cast.
The star power of the Hindi version of Mowgli: Legend Of The Jungle matches that of the all-star ensemble of the original international production. It features the voices of, among others, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andy Serkis, Tom Hollander and Naomie Harris, besides onscreen appearances by Freida Pinto, Matthew Rhys and Indian American child actor Rohan Chand in the titular role.
Kareena Kapoor steps in for Blanchett as Kaa, who bookends the film as the omniscient narrator who has kept watch on the jungle since the beginning of time and can also see the future. The testimonials and predictions that the immortal python hisses out - one of them, about halfway into the film, prepares Mowgli for his larger purpose in life - are delivered with great flair by the Bollywood star.
The other Hindi voice actors - Abhishek Bachchan as Bagheera, Anil Kapoor as Baloo, Jackie Shroff as the evil Shere Khan and Madhuri Dixit as Mowgli's protective foster mother in the wild - are also as good as Bale, Serkis, Cumberbatch and Harris. The urge to compare, however, takes a backseat as the fast-paced story unfolds, following Mowgli from one brush with danger to another.
Under the tutelage of Baloo, the man-cub learns the art of survival in the jungle but when he is thrown into the 'Running' test that will decide if he will earn the right to hunt with the pack of wolves led by the ageing Akela, he inevitably falters. With Bagheera hot on his trail, he has to come out in one piece - a feat easier said than achieved. Mowgli himself is acutely aware of his own severe shortcomings.
The wounded Shere Khan, the vicious tiger who killed Mowgli's parents when he was a baby, is on the prowl, determined to make a meal out of the man-cub at the first opportunity. When Mowgli ends up in the human village, where Messua (Pinto) does her best to put him at ease, his path crosses that of the hunter John Lockwood. We have the same enemy, the latter says to Mowgli. But can the two ever be on the same side?
Mowgli faces many other serious threats as he resists all suggestions that he should return to the nearest man village. The jungle is my home and I belong among the wolves, he insists. But as Kaa reminds him, he is neither fully human nor fully animal. His 'otherness' is his principal weakness, a predicament that he shares with the little albino wolf Bhoot, a weakling desperate to form a bond with him. In a world, and in an era, where the powerful prey on the vulnerable and single out those that are different for subjugation, Mowgli's plight acquires a sinister edge.
Similarly, Serkis situates the conflict sparked by human encroachment and the resultant shrinking of the jungle in the context of the urgent need for balance and conservation. But the established laws of the jungle that are loaded in favour of the strongest and the fittest assert their might on all else in a continuing process of elimination and inclusion that is aimed at establishing peace.
If you can relate to the gravitas that Serkis lends to a much-loved jungle tale, Mowgli: Legend Of The Jungle is the film for you. But if you can't, it could take some getting used to. Give the film a shot - you might return feeling rewarded.