The film’s circuitous path to exhibition is a tangled web of vines unto itself, with Warner Bros. having reconsidered a major release, eventually selling the completed production to Netflix. It’s now receiving a fleeting theatrical run in advance of its entry into the streaming jungles.
Serkis — renowned for his work in “The Lord of the Rings” and “Planet of the Apes” trilogies — has sought to bring a harder-edged, more relevant take to the story, working with screenwriter Callie Kloves. Dispensing with the cheerful songs, this look at the man-cub Mowgli (Rohan Chand ) even incorporates a preservationist message, with the encroachment of man seen as a perilous threat to the natural world.
The bones of the story remain largely the same, but are presented with a bit more bite, just as the language and dialogue possesses a certain poetry.
Orphaned because the tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) killed his parents — “breaking the jungle’s ancient law” — the baby Mowgli is rescued by the panther Bagheera (Christian Bale), who leaves him with a pack of wolves. They raise and protect him, but his continued presence is contingent on his ability to prove that he can run with them — a particular challenge, as the helpful bear Baloo (Serkis) points out, because he’s not a wolf.
Bagheera believes that Mowgli can only be saved by forcing him to live with his own kind in the man-village, but once there, he encounters new issues, including his interactions with a hunter (“The Americans'” Matthew Rhys) hired to slay the tiger, who has been feasting on the villagers’ livestock.
Mowgli is described as “man and wolf, both and neither,” and the movie, similarly, isn’t entirely fish nor fowl. The production design, for example, is both impressively florid and at times a trifle murky, just as the animals’ slightly anthropomorphized faces — animated using the actors’ expressions as the foundation — occasionally look a trifle distracting.
In some respects, “Mowgli” has as much in common with more serious renditions of the Tarzan story as the Disney depiction with singing animals, with the boy bringing his human advantages to bear in dealing with the jungle threats that assail him. That includes a reasonably violent climactic sequence that — parents should be forewarned — might be too intense for kids expecting to hear “The Bear Necessities,” or some facsimile thereof.
For all that, the operatic nature of the production — and a splendid that cast that also includes Serkis, Naomie Harris and Cate Blanchett — brings an imprimatur of class to the movie.
Because “Mowgli” doesn’t neatly fit into the conventional boxes — a talking-animals movie that’s not for kids — the parties probably weren’t wrong to harbor misgivings about its survival prospects. But this is one of those happy occasions where the Netflix model allows a project that might have been lost in the theatrical wilds to find its place in the circle of life, albeit on a lower tier of the jungle canopy.
“Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” will premiere theatrically in select cities Nov. 29 and on Netflix on Dec. 7.