In 2006, it was Capote and Infamous. In 2013 it was White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen. This year it was the turn of The Mercy and Crowhurst. All made at much the same time and telling the same story, they’re just a few instances of what the industry calls “twin films.” And now, after changes in release dates and distributors, we at last get to see one that feels like it’s been a long time coming. Andy Serkis’s version of Kipling’s The Jungle Book although, determined not to be seen in the shadow of Jon Favreau’s Oscar winner, the name has changed. It’s now Mowgli:Legend Of The Jungle.
Favreau’s The Jungle Book arrived in cinemas in 2016, billed as a “live action” version of Disney’s classic animation from the 60s. In reality, it was all performance capture – admittedly of the highest order – with the one exception of the Neel Sethi as Mowgli. The animals were voiced by a cast that included Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley and Idris Elba and, coming from the Mouse House, it was also a production that used the much-loved cartoon as its reference point. But all the time in the background was the other production, the one from Serkis, the king of mo-cap, with the voices of Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Benedict Cumberbatch and without a Disney connection.
Comparisons are inevitable, and expectations high, given Serkis’s ground breaking reputation for this type of film making. And this isn’t a mo-cap carbon copy. In part the storyline is much the same, with Mowgli (Rohan Chand) raised by the wolves with help from Bagheera (Bale) and Baloo (Serkis) and pursued by the tiger Shere Khan (Cumberbatch). But this is much more about the boy, so more time is spent in the human village, developing his relationships with the caring Messua (Freida Pinto) and white hunter Lockwood (Matthew Rhys), employed to kill Shere Khan. Essentially, it’s about Mowgli finding his place in the world – with his wolf family or with the humans in the village. Or does having one foot in each camp mean he’ll never truly belong anywhere?
The motion capture is confined to the animals and Serkis seems to have approached their creation in much the same way as for The Planet Of The Apes franchise. Caesar and his followers were, of course, based on apes, but with human-like facial expressions and gestures which weren’t out of place. Their eyes sparkled with life and it was superbly convincing. Here the species are different – a panther, a bear, wolves, a python, a tiger – and they’re based on their character traits, not their real life equivalents in the wild. So the result is a group of overly-humanised creatures obviously created by motion capture, which don’t convince and, in some instances, come dangerously close to caricatures. With Cockney tones from Serkis and a lop-sided, scarred face, Baloo comes across as a furry, more benign version of Bill Sykes. Shere Khan’s facial markings make him look like he’s had his brows threaded and is wearing eyeliner. The level of artifice is a distraction, one that doesn’t allow the audience to fully concentrate on what the film is trying to say.
This isn’t just another live action version of The Jungle Book, but more of a hybrid: mo-cap and live action combine in much the same way at The Planet Of The Apes series. Talented and trailblazing though he is, from this Serkis appears to be stuck in something of a rut and, from the director’s chair, is attempting to re-create some of his past glories and falling somewhat short. Where does he go from here?
Freda Cooper | ★★1/2
Adventure, Drama | UK cinemas, 29 November (2018): Netflix, 7 December |Warner Brothers, Netflix | Dir. Andy Serkis | Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rohan Chand, Freida Pinto, Matthew Rhys and Peter Mullan.