Let's put the new Netflix film aside for a moment. When you really think about it, the story of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is quite terrifying. A boy is orphaned after his parents are killed by wild animals. He’s raised by wolves and stalked by a tiger bent on destroying him. He’s forever an outcast, destined to be neither fully man nor animal.
Though Kipling’s story has been adapted countless times, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, out today on Netflix, especially harnesses the story’s inherent violence. The movie, directed by Andy Serkis, exchanges the original songs found in Disney’s charming adaptations (both the 1967 cartoon and the recent 2016 live action) for sheer terror. Case in point: When Mowgli (an excellent Ronan Chand) visits the apes in Mowgli: Legend in the Jungle, he’s brutally beat up — not treated to a rendition of “I Wanna Be Like You” by King Louie. This is just to say that Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is nightmare-inducing, both for its inclusion of scary plot twists and tigers that look like Benedict Cumberbatch.
Aside from the fear factor, how does Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle compare to past renditions of the classic story? Let’s briefly go into the plot — which is similar to the familiar tale, but with a few extra brutal streaks.
First of all, who's in the cast?
There are some very familiar voices in this one. Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock and Doctor Strange fame is the voice of Shere Khan, the devious tiger we were all terrified of as children. If you recognise the voice of trusty black panther Bagheera, that's because it belongs to Dark Knight star Christian Bale. The wonderful Naomie Harris (Moonlight) voices mother wolf Nisha while Cate Blanchett (Ocean's 8) speaks life into Kaa the snake.
Matthew Rhys plays Lockwood, an English hunter and is the impending threat to the jungle's survival. Frieda Pinto is Messua, one of the women in the illusive man village and the titular character is played by Rohan Chand, who you might vaguely (and I mean, vaguely) recognise from the new Jumanji where IMDb says he played "Kid at Bazaar".
So, what happens?
As usual, after Mowgli’s parents are killed by the tiger Shere Khan, he’s rescued by Bagheera and raised by a pack of wolves. The pack leader, Akela (Peter Mullan), hopes that Mowgli can protect the wolves from human violence. In this version, civilisation — and all its threats — is a much more significant theme. Shere Khan has taken to killing man’s cattle, leading Akela to fear men will retaliate.
Mowgli’s real identity crisis begins after Akela, his protector, is nearly deposed as leader. After Akela misses his target in a hunting run, Shere Khan arrives to enforce the pack’s own law (dude has too much free time). According to their tradition, when a pack’s leader shows weakness, younger wolves are supposed to challenge him to a fight to the death. Determined to protect his pack, Mowgli uses fire to stop the ritual and banish Shere Khan. It doesn’t go as planned. As punishment for using the “man’s tool” of fire on animals, Akela banishes him him from the pack and into the human village.
Hold up: Mowgli goes to man village in the middle of the movie?
Yep! Unlike in past versions of The Jungle Book, Mowgli actually lives in the human village at some point. Think Mowgli will be more accepted by his human counterparts? Think again. Ironically, Mowgli is locked up in a cage, much like his animal brothers might be in an old-fashioned zoo. But a haircut and a religious ritual later, Mowgli is assimilated and happy with his new tribe. He even refuses to return when his wolves call him home to help fight against Shere Khan.
Alas: The humans turn out to be utterly disappointing, too. In the village, Mowgli links up with someone with the same goals. Lockwood is an arrogant, frequently drunk English hunter who intends to kill Shere Khan to protect the village's cattle. But because Lockwood is a no-good coloniser, he kills a lot of other things, too — including Mowgli’s best friend, Bhoot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), an albino wolf club. With the inclusion of Lockwood, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle deviates big time from the other movies and aligns itself with Kipling’s original text, which have imperialist themes.
After Mowgli realizes the hunter is a scoundrel, he goes on to fulfil his one and only goal: Killing Shere Khan. Though the wolves refuse to “break the laws of the jungle” and kill another animal, Mowgli is free from those laws. “This is not the jungle you once knew,” Mowgli tells Akela, with the tone of a young person who believes himself wiser than his elders
A rogue Mowgli enlists the help of his elephant pals. Together, they successfully kill Shere Khan. The icing on the cake? One elephant also gets revenge on the hunter, who had stolen part of his tusk years ago. An elephant never forgets.
How does the ending of Mowgli compare to other versions of The Jungle Book?
The ending of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle has a particularly epic twist, thanks to Kaa’s final voiceover. As Mowgli climbs on an elephant’s back and returns to the jungle, Kaa pronounces, “With the tiger and the hunter now gone, the future shimmered from darkness into light. Mowgli, man and wolf, both and neither, had given the jungle a voice. And for as long as he stood watch, it would speak a lasting peace.”
Let’s unpack this. According to Kaa, as long as Mowgli stands watch, the clash between humans and nature will take a break. Kaa’s speech may sound epic, but it’s empty. There will always be more tigers. There will always be more hunters. We know from the history of man and jungles that there has not been lasting peace.
Suffice to say, Mowgli’s ending strikes a different tone than the Disney versions’. In the 1967 iteration, Mowgli joins the human village in a bittersweet ending. After years in this egalitarian jungle, Mowgli was lured away from Baloo and Bagheera by the sight of a young girl with seductive eyes. He follows her down the path to the human village. In the 2016 version, Mowgli deems the human village overrated and sticks in the jungle with his friends.
Mowgli is essentially one boy’s journey of becoming a glorified park ranger. Still, we trust him as leader more than we'd trust Lockwood.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle released on UK Netflix on 7th December