Andy Serkis is, by acclimation, the greatest motion-capture actor ever. That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but in this CGI-dappled, fantasy-dominated century of cinema, it’s an estimable title. As Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, Serkis found new and innovative ways to emote through layers of technology and make otherworldly characters feel tangible. So it makes some sort of sense that he’d be tasked with bringing a story like Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book to life. As the director of Mowgli, debuting on Netflix December 7 after a limited theatrical run, Serkis has to draw out compelling performances from a tiger, a panther, and a pack of wolves—all of them computer-generated.
Mowgli, which is being promoted with the unnecessary subtitle Legend of the Jungle, has had a strange route to the screen. Filmed in 2015, it languished in post-production for nearly three years; last July, Netflix acquired the distribution rights from Warner Bros. That means the movie won’t play on big screens outside of a very limited release, which is unfortunate for a work made on such an epic scale. Still, it’s easy to see why Mowgli was shuffled over to streaming: For all the time Serkis has had to tinker with it, the film feels painfully incomplete, from its frequently told story to its weak visuals.
Serkis—who has also played motion-capture luminaries such as Star Wars’ Snoke, Planet of the Apes’ Caesar, and Tintin’s Captain Haddock—seems to have directed all his attention to Mowgli’s animal creations. The script, from the debut writer Callie Kloves, is a grittier, more violent take on Kipling’s Mowgli tales (drawing from The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book), but the narrative remains familiar. Mowgli (Rohan Chand) is a human child raised in the jungle by kindly wolves who is contending with the encroachment of man and other predators.
Unlike Disney’s two takes on The Jungle Book—the 1967 animated version and the (broadly similar) 2016 “live-action” remake—Serkis’s film makes some effort to grapple with the colonial malevolence of Kipling’s tales. The character of John Lockwood (Kipling’s father, and the illustrator of many of his books) is played by Matthew Rhys as a merciless big-game hunter, toting a shotgun and looking for additions to his trophy wall. But most of the movie is spent in the jungle, where Mowgli is taught by Baloo the bear (voiced and performed by Serkis) how to be a member of the wolf tribe and avoid the evil Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), a tiger who wants Mowgli dead.
I wasn’t too enamored of Jon Favreau’s 2016 The Jungle Book, which translated Disney’s charming cartoon animals into photo-realistic creatures who still hummed songs and cracked silly jokes. But the CGI on display there was far more advanced than what Serkis is working with. The animals in Mowgli look ill-formed and unconvincing, and the environments around them appear dull and colorless. For all the years put into post-production work, Mowgli looks surprisingly terrible; the visuals are so PlayStation-esque, I half expected Crash Bandicoot to swing in on a vine midway through.
The motion-capture performances are similarly one-note, all of them indebted to Serkis’s legendary scene-chewing as Gollum. While Serkis played that character, a warped and demonic little imp, as big as possible, he has also given incredibly subtle motion-capture performances, particularly as the strong and silent ape leader Caesar. Almost all the major stars recruited for Mowgli offer no such nuance. As Shere Khan, Cumberbatch is in classic villain mode, much as he was when he played the dragon Smaug in the Hobbit movies. Cate Blanchett is on autopilot as the hypnotic python Kaa (who functions as the narrator), and Serkis himself affects an oddly hokey Cockney accent as Baloo.
Without Disney’s loose structure of songs and misadventures, Mowgli is formless, going through the motions of a hero’s journey as the boy trains, fights, and overcomes his enemies. Serkis includes more bloody violence to emphasize the brutality of life in the jungle, but The Jungle Book is, at its core, a whimsical story with talking animals. Scene after scene of wolves convening to discuss tribal bylaws and bare their teeth at one another is not so much intriguingly realistic as it is plainly dull.
Netflix’s film slate in 2018 has been a peculiar mix of revived genres (romantic comedies in particular), worthy pieces of art cinema (such as Roma), and projects such as Mowgli or The Cloverfield Paradox, which are odd castoffs from other studios. The whole project has an element of curiosity to it, a grimmer version of a shiny Disney blockbuster, but the execution is so lacking that Mowgli can’t rise beyond the level of being an interesting footnote. Serkis himself remains an elite motion-capture thespian, but that skill isn’t enough to support such a tired retread.