Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is, perhaps, one of the most adapted stories of all time. Even though his portrayal of an Indian jungle, based somewhere in Madhya Pradesh, projected a certain allure of mysticism and mystery, there is an allegory that can be drawn. Published in 1899, Kipling’s poem The White Man’s burden hailed the American colonization of the Philippines, drawing parallels to the British colonization of the Indian sub-continent. In the poem, which drew a lot of controversy, Kipling sought to justify why the imperial occupation of “backward nations” was not only good but essential. Mowgli’s character is symbolic to a future India that is struggling to overcome her attachment to the jungle, which is a brutish world and Kipling’s image of the “Indian society”. Baloo and Bagheera are the remnants of an age-old East India Company which keeps protecting Mowgli from the evil clutches of Sher Khan, the Queen herself. While the East India Company wishes to keep its Business interests paramount, they are wary of the increasing interference from the crown which would mean taxes and loss of control. However, as chaos grows, Bagheera asks Mowgli to leave the jungle and live with the humans. Humans, if you have inferred by now, is Imperialism. From this perspective, The Jungle Book is the story of Mowgli’s domestication and his return to civilized society.
Motion capture legend Andy Serkis’s directorial debut, Mowgli – Legend of the Jungle, is a grittier retelling of the story that we have come to know so well. The film opens with Sher Khan killing Mowgli’s parents, and Bagheera saving the infant child by bringing him to the wolf-pack led by Akela. Under the ever looming shadow of Sher Khan who cannot wait to get a taste of his blood, Mowgli grows up into a gangly, curious kid who has now started to notice his differences. He keeps questioning Bagheera as to why he doesn’t look like his “brothers”, to which Bagheera says that it is because he was special. As a coming-of-age ceremony to formally become a part of the pack, Mowgli has to compete with other wolves in tests devised by their teacher Baloo, the only rule being – do not get caught by Bagheera. However, just before Mowgli can make it to the proverbial finish line, Bagheera grabs him.
Mowgli understood that Bagheera wanted him to leave for the man-village but he is disheartened to see that he was not even given a chance. Meanwhile, during a hunt, Akela misses his prey making him liable to be challenged by other wolves to a fight. Whoever won would become the new Alpha. During this time of instability, Sher Khan asserts his power and tries to attack the pack. In an opportune moment, Mowgli grabs a flaming torch from the village and wards him away, thus protecting the pack. Akela, however, feels that Mowgli had now resorted to “weapons of man” and was no longer one of them. The boy is cast out to live among humans. As Mowgli finds his place among humans, the jungle is taken over by Sher Khan, with half the pack on his side. The balance of the jungle now rests upon Mowgli’s shoulder as he prepares for a fight until death.
While Jon Favreau’s 2015 adaptation of the story was brightly coloured with an innate sense of innocence, Serkis chooses a much darker colour palette for his film. The jungle feels darker and more dangerous, and blood is spilt from time to time. Although the animals in Favreau’s rendition felt more welcoming, they barely had any facial expression which was one way to film it. Serkis, however, anthropomorphizes them even further with more human-like expression. You can actually distinguish emotions like laughter, anger and contempt in their faces. With his rich experience in motion-capture technology and the work that goes behind it, it makes sense that Serkis would want to bring that out in his characters. He does that not just through their faces but through their voices as well. Mowgli has a stellar cast with Christian Bale voicing Bagheera, Serkis voicing Baloo himself, Cate Blanchett voicing Kaa, and Benedict Cumberbatch voicing Sher Khan.
Having said that, it is Rohan Chand, the young 14-year-old, who grabs your attention. Chand’s portrayal is one of the most realistic Mowglis yet. For what is narrated as a children’s story, Mowgli demanded a lot of angst and a feeling of betrayal which Chand plays to perfection. With ace cinematographer Michael Seresin’s touch, Mowgli is beautifully shot. You can see Seresin’s Prisoner of Azkaban signature here as well. There are some really breath-taking shots that I would let you experience yourself. Serkis’s rendition re-imagines the classic tale of finding one’s true identity in a way that had never been told before. Even though this is a story that we have heard many times, it doesn’t feel stale or over-used in any way. All I can say at the end is – Welcome to the Directors’ Club, Andy. We will wait for more exciting stuff from you.