In its continued quest to cater to all your entertainment needs, Netflix has made a habit of acquiring films from Hollywood studios that would’ve otherwise struggled to make a significant impact at the box office. Sometimes, it’s because the film itself is just bad—the streamer acquired The Cloverfield Paradox from Paramount, and turned a disastrous movie into a buzz-worthy, post–Super Bowl event; other times, there’s sentiment that the content in question won’t appeal to the masses, like when it took on the international rights to Paramount’s philosophical-leaning Annihilation. This is among the many roles Netflix plays in our current entertainment landscape: The streamer will often create, and acquire, the films Hollywood rarely makes anymore now that it’s focused on superhero flicks and franchise reboots.
On Friday, Netflix unveiled its latest acquisition from a major Hollywood studio with Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, which was originally a product of Warner Bros. and was directed by Andy Serkis, the motion-capture master behind Gollum in the Lord of the Rings franchise and Caesar in the new Planet of the Apes franchise. The simplest way to understand the studio’s decision to hand off this project—an adaptation of famous intellectual property, which sounds like a guaranteed moneymaker—is that it was beaten to the punch. Disney released its own live-action take on The Jungle Book just over two years ago with great success—the movie made nearly $1 billion worldwide. It’s a tough sell to convince moviegoers to come back in droves for … something they literally just saw.
But viewers who check Mowgli out on Netflix aren’t getting a thematic and narrative retread of Disney’s Jungle Book—they’re getting something far different, and far grittier, for better or worse. Unlike Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book, Mowgli is rated PG-13—something made apparent a few minutes into the movie when Mowgli’s parents are mauled and presumably eaten by the tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Though the deaths happen off-screen, there’s enough implied in the scene—and enough disturbingly effective sound effects of flesh being torn apart—to leave a lasting impression, and that’s before you see the image of an infant Mowgli covered in his parents’ blood.
The disturbing, visceral opening sequence establishes the darker tone and bloody aesthetic of Serkis’s Mowgli, which repeatedly insists that the jungle is, indeed, a scary place—especially for a human. This kill-or-be-killed mantra is echoed through other chilling sequences, the best of which happens when an older Mowgli (Rohan Chand) is swimming underwater in a lake as Shere Khan approaches to take a drink. He’s just killed an animal, so his tongue touching the surface turns the water dark red; Mowgli has to remain perfectly still and hold his breath so as to not attract attention from the creature hellbent on mauling him. It’s one of the most tense scenes I’ve seen all year—in a friggin’ Jungle Book adaptation!
So yeah, Mowgli would be an extremely traumatic watch for children. Even Baloo the bear (voiced by Serkis) is less a charismatic mentor than a scrappy-looking teacher of essential survival skills—the movie might as well call him Baloo the Bear Grylls. And of course Baloo doesn’t sing the “Bear Necessities” song; nobody sings in this film, or has very much fun in general.
Because Serkis is at the helm, it’s no surprise that Mowgli leans heavily on motion capture. Motion capture is an exhaustive process to adapt to the screen—though it looks really funny in the early stages, like when Benedict Cumberbatch tries to look menacing with a bunch of dots glued to his face, because his expressions are gonna be put onto a tiger.
Kind of obsessed with this Mowgli behind-the-scenes video where our greatest living actors pretend to be animals. pic.twitter.com/a0ZfVll2VE— NX (@NXOnNetflix) December 10, 2018
The best mo-cap work evokes eerily human-like expressions from a CGI creature, the way Gollum and Caesar feel like a true extension of the actor who plays them. But using motion capture on animals, and putting human-like faces on wolves, tigers, snakes, and bears, leads to slightly off-putting results. I’m sorry, but these human eyes on a bear’s head are nightmare-inducing:
Mowgli approaches that uncanny valley with most of its animals: The effect doesn’t work in the same way as The Jungle Book’s CGI, which makes the creatures look as natural as possible. The mo-cap effect is not as disturbing with a creature like Gollum or an ape like Caesar or King Kong because they’re both close enough to being human. When you’re looking at a bear and you get the impression you’re looking at Andy Serkis’s face, though, it’s creepy in a way Mowgli clearly didn’t intend. Mowgli might’ve received a different sort of critical appraisal as a survival story set in the jungle, but as an adaptation of a famous children’s fable, it feels like a twisted thematic misfire. The movie is intentionally scary where it shouldn’t have been—what parent would want to show their 10-year-old a movie that begins with a tiger attack?—and unintentionally scary in other ways.
Were Mowgli released in theaters by Warners instead of sold to Netflix, it’s almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which this film would’ve taken the box office by storm. The PG-13 rating would’ve meant few kids—the most important demographic for a Jungle Book adaptation—would have gone to see to it. And considering there’s a scene where Mowgli finds the taxidermied head of his best friend—an albino wolf named Bhoot with a birth defect—in the trophy room of a white animal hunter (played by Matthew Rhys), that’s a good thing.
RIP, little buddy.
The uncompromising darkness of the narrative is among the many reasons that Mowgli is a fascinating project. It’s by no means a great film, but the adult-oriented approach is antithetical to what you’d imagine a studio like Warners would want, assuming the goal is to create the biggest box office gross possible. And it’s not like Serkis specifically took Mowgli into a grittier direction: At one point, the studio was eyeing Alejandro González Iñárritu for the project. We know how that auteur feels about bears and the wilderness.
So despite a star-studded cast led by Christian Bale, Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Serkis, and Naomie Harris, Mowgli was always doomed to tank through a traditional theatrical run as The Gritty Jungle Book. While it wasn’t the company’s project to begin with, the fact Mowgli will now live in Netflix’s programming library in perpetuity is perhaps the best thing that could’ve happened to it. Instead of being a studio’s box office disaster, the film’s found a life on the streamer. Just don’t show it to your kids.