Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle
“Do we really need another Victorian-era tale with colonialist overtones that does nothing different, nor particularly well?”
Title: Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle
Director: Andy Serkis 👨🏽🇬🇧
Writers: Screenplay by Callie Kloves 👩🏼🇺🇸 based on story by Rudyard Kipling 👨🏼🇬🇧
Reviewed by Monique 👩🏾🇺🇸
Andy Serkis’ Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle doesn’t know what it wants to say. Its source material subscribes to a Victorian sensibility that feels out of step in today’s world, and Serkis does little to address the dissonance. This doesn’t make the film unenjoyable; in fact, Mowgli can be a fun diversion. But viewers should go in knowing they are watching a stereotypical “director’s first film”—one which trods through plot points rather than gliding through with the confident ease that experience can bring.
Despite containing significant amounts of violence, much of it directed towards poor little Mowgli (Rohan Chand), the film simply never manages to shake a feeling of detachedness. Perhaps it’s because we’ve all seen The Jungle Book gazillions of times by now. What more is there to pull from this outdated narrative?
Beyond the flawed premise, however, I enjoyed watching Chand who took on a lot for this role, especially at the young age of 14. He performs his own stunts; wears special effects makeup to look badly bruised; and acts against blank spots where CGI would later be filled in. For a young actor still carving out his place in Hollywood, Chand holds his own. His growing resume shows a lot of promise and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for his future.
Serkis, on the other hand, represents a seasoned actor who’s been in the game for decades. He flexes his skills in Mowgli as Baloo, a grizzled, Cockney version of the cuddly bear we might recall from the Disney animated film. His motion-capture role is impressive, but when it comes to directing, you can see where he’s still learning his craft. Even still, it’s nice to see the directing pool become more diverse; Serkis is biracial of English and Armenian descent.
Being a director of color doesn’t mean you have to focus on race and culture, of course. Alfonso Cuarón is a great example; he directed Roma, a uniquely Mexican story, but he’s also directed A Little Princess, Great Expectations, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Gravity. However, as we have seen from directors like him, Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, Jon Chu, Taika Waititi, and many others, personal experiences shape a director’s vision and can lend authenticity and heart to unique films. I’m interested in knowing what kinds of stories Serkis could bring us—stories that we might have not heard yet.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test: NOPE
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 11% of key cast and crew members were women.
Gender representation in Mowgli leaves much to be desired. Some of that comes from the original subject matter, sure, but ultimately the filmmakers fails in portraying their existing female characters with any complexity.
The main women include Naomie Harris as Mowgli’s wolf mother Nisha; Cate Blanchett as the mysterious boa constrictor Kaa; and Freida Pinto as Messua, a young woman who belongs to the village Mowgli is forced to join. Nisha, Kaa, and Messua each fall into flat archetypes.
Nisha and Messua embody angelic mother figures who nurture, but are ultimately powerless. Nisha tries to protect Mowgli when he’s a baby but fails to speak up when his adoptive wolf tribe banishes him. Similarly, when Mowgli is left to fend for himself in the human village, Messua takes good care of him. But she’s never realized as a character with her own thoughts and desires. Instead, she follows the lead of the film’s human villain, Lockwood (Matthew Rhys).
Then there’s Kaa, the narrator of the film who also feels woefully underdeveloped. It seems like the film wants her to play both the parts of a villain—a role the snake has usually held in other adaptations—and a neutral jungle soothsayer. This leads to misleading scenes featuring Kaa wanting to hunt and eat Mowgli, even though Kaa herself tells Mowgli he is destined to save the jungle. It’s hard to know what we’re supposed to make of her altogether.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 11% of key cast and crew members were POC.
Race is treated oddly in this film. With the stories set in India, where author Rudyard Kipling grew up as a child in the 1800s, there are a lot of onscreen cues between white English colonists and Indian natives that go wholly unaddressed. Serkis probably neglects this on purpose, since the film tries so hard not to rock the boat. But avoiding race in The Jungle Book just makes it more apparent.
For instance, the village needs Lockwood to hunt and kill Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch). But the optics of an Indian village needing a white colonizer to protect them simply grates. This brings me back to my original point about The Jungle Book—there’s no place for this story in the 21st century without significant updates.
The relationship between Messua and Lockwood also raises questions. We aren’t ever clear on what their relationship entails. But because Lockwood personally hands Mowgli off to Messua, there’s the insinuation that he and Messua have some sort of romantic arrangement. If so, that raises issues as it begins to play into the stereotype of submissive and available minority woman. Indeed, Messua is intensely submissive, to the point of barely speaking in the film. She defers to Lockwood when they’re in scenes together, and for the audience, she just appears to be an exotic object. It’s uncomfortable to watch, and Pinto deserves better than this.
Colorism also gives the film an icky tinge; all of the background villagers are darker, while Pinto, the main villager, is much lighter in complexion. There’s no reason the roles needed to be cast this way.
Indian villagers could have included a variety of skin tones. Messua could have been cast with a darker-skinned actor. The fact that they weren’t points to a larger problem. Whether it’s Pinto, or other Indian actors like Priyanka Chopra, Anupam Kher, or Aishwarya Rai, light-skinned privilege continues to rule Indian roles, even as conversation surrounding Black colorism has begun to surface. Forward-thinking filmmakers such as Barry Jenkins or Jordan Peele have deliberately cast darker-skinned actors to address colorism, and I would love to see this happen more with South Asian roles too.
To be fair, though, the film does have a darker-skinned protagonist in Chand, who is Indian American. Having a darker-skinned Mowgli does mitigate some of the colorism that crops up via the village. However, it would have been nice if Mowgli wasn’t the only exception to the rule.
Mediaversity Grade: D 2.00/5
I wouldn’t call Mowgli a waste of time, especially since you can just stream it on Netflix. But you’ll still wonder if you could have spent your time mainlining Nailed It or the latest K-drama instead. Serkis’ film debut challenges nothing, which can either be good or bad depending on what you're looking for. But do you really need another Victorian-era tale with colonialist overtones that does nothing different, nor particularly well?