"Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle" is a bloody good version of "The Jungle Book." And I do mean bloody. Mowgli the man-cub is introduced as an infant, covered in blood. It's the blood of his mother, slain by the ferocious tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch, menace echoing in every syllable of his voice work). Thus is the course of the story set: Mowgli will be stalked and threatened until one or the other of them winds up dead.
"Nature, red in tooth and claw," as Tennyson wrote, could have been the guiding principle behind the screenplay by Callie Kloves and the direction by Andy Serkis. Everywhere, fangs are bared, by Mowgli's panther pal Bagheera (Christian Bale), burly bear buddy Baloo (Serkis) and the assorted apes and monkeys that snatch the kid from the jungle floor and carry him off to a gloomy cave lair.
No previous screen rendering of the Rudyard Kipling classic - not the 2016 Disney live-action epic and certainly not the jaunty, tuneful 1967 Disney animated version beloved by generations - has been so very dark and wild and, surprisingly, thoughtful.
Serkis, best-known for his motion-capture performances as Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" series and Caesar in the "Planet of the Apes" trilogy, has used computer-generated imagery to render talking animals that are scarred, substantial and never to be trifled with.
A seamless blend of CGI and in-studio sets, the jungle in "Mowgli" is vast and tangled, a place of danger and great beauty.
In the title role, New York-born actor Rohan Chand, 14, handles the physical demands of the part (racing through the bush on all fours, swinging from vines) with impressive athleticism and delivers the emotional beats with striking conviction.
It's a demanding role in which Mowgli, raised by wolves, must wrestle with figuring out just who he is and how he fits into the scheme of things in the jungle. "I'm not a man. But neither am I a wolf," he declares. And the python Kaa (Cate Blanchett, oozing authority), a literally hypnotic character, says "I think we can all agree, Mowgli, that you are something the jungle has never seen before."
His emotional journey takes him from trying to master the art of the hunt; to attempting to follow the guidance of Bagheera and Baloo on the laws of the jungle; to rejecting that counsel; to deciding - after being captured and caged by a hunter (Matthew Rhys) - to join human society, at least for a while, and turn his back on the animals who raised and molded him.
And in the process of defining himself, he must somehow avoid the claws and teeth of Shere Khan who has bloodied him in past close encounters.
"Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle," with Rohan Chand, Matthew Rhys, and the voices of Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis. Directed by Andy Serkis, from a screenplay by Callie Kloves, based on a novel by Rudyard Kipling.
The writer is a film critic
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