The road to the release of "Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle" has been a long and winding one. Although technically it's the directorial debut of Andy Serkis, the actor known primarily for motion-capture roles, this hybrid of live action and motion-capture animation—an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" that has been seven years in the making—was delayed when Disney announced its own version of the same thing.
That 2016 film, a high-tech remake of the studio's 1967 "The Jungle Book," about an orphaned Indian boy, Mowgli, who is raised by wolves, went on to win the Oscar for visual effects. And Serkis went on to make the fact-based melodrama "Breathe," while his telling of Kipling's tale languished.
But Serkis' dark and decidedly adult vision of Kipling's story, a staple of children's literature, has finally arrived in select theaters and on Netflix streaming, where it is unlikely to be confused with the Disney film.
Although "Mowgli" looks every bit as good as that version, directed by Jon Favreau, "Mowgli" is more violent by a long shot, opening with the deaths of the title character's parents, who are killed—and presumedly eaten—by the film's main villain, the tiger Shere Khan (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch). Although that scene takes place largely off-screen, the attack leaves the infant Mowgli, who is rescued by the panther Bagheera (Christian Bale), smeared in his mother's and father's blood. Later scenes are even more disturbing and do not flinch from showing grievous injury and death (or at least its aftermath, in the form of a taxidermied supporting character).
Although the main character—nicely played by Rohan Chand, 10 at the time of filming, and 14 now—is a child, the PG-13 "Mowgli" seems geared to a much older audience than is traditionally associated with the story.
It is, however, a terribly beautiful film, in the literal sense of the words. One telling scene features Mowgli bathing in a stream of water. As Shere Khan approaches, our hero hides underwater, as we watch, from below, the tiger's blood-soaked muzzle redden the current as he drinks from it. It's simultaneously gory and gorgeous.
Some of what makes "Mowgli" so grown up is its unrelenting intensity: As the boy matures, his position as a member of the wolf pack becomes contingent on passing a physical test, the stakes of which are no less than his survival. Although Shere Khan is the film's No. 1 antagonist, Mowgli is also threatened by the python Kaa (Cate Blanchett), the hyena Tabaqui (Tom Hollander) and even a human (Matthew Rhys), a British hunter who is hired by the Indian villagers. There is no time for cheerful interludes singing "The Bare Necessities" with Baloo (Serkis), a bear who is tasked with the training of the pack's cubs (including Mowgli).
More so even than the film's violence and suspense, what sets "Mowgli" apart from other versions of this animal fable is its moral contradictions. Its hero, to the extent that it has one, is ethically challenged, undertaking actions that are questionable, even for a child who is still learning to navigate society (albeit one that is, literally, a jungle). There are "laws" in this world of animals, and Mowgli breaks some with impunity.
In some ways, "Mowgli" feels like an origin story. There's a slight but unmistakable suggestion of a potential sequel to its open-ended climax. Only here, the hero that is birthed in the jungle is a conflicted one, along the lines of Marvel's "Daredevil" or "The Punisher" on Netflix.
Yes, some kids watch those hyperviolent comic-book adventures, too. In "Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle," they—and their parents—will find yet another character who is as compromised as these times demand.
Three stars. Also available via Netflix streaming. Contains intense sequences of action violence, some bloody images and mature thematic elements. 104 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.