Ever since Rudyard Kipling’s inventive, late 19th century novel about the boy raised by wolves reached popular culture, the story of “The Jungle Book” has been beloved, replicated and modernized time and time again. By now, we all know the tale of Mowgli and his struggle to find his place within the human and animal kingdoms. There is no denying that it is a solid story. But, whether it is a story that is worthy of the degree of cinematic attention that it has been given over the past 30 years is definitely debatable. By adhering to an already too-familiar plotline and failing to identify its target audience, Netflix’s latest rendition of the age-old classic is an almost identical match to the 2016 reboot and offers little substance for viewers to chew on (or stay awake for).
Orphaned as a baby after his mother is killed by the notoriously vicious tiger, Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”), young Mowgli (Rohan Chand, “Jack and Jill”) is reluctantly rescued by the quietly heroic black panther, Bagheera (Christian Bale, “The Dark Knight”). Though taken in by a kind family of wolves, as Mowgli grows up, he begins to view himself as more and more of an outsider, unable to measure up to or identify with his “littermates.” Lurking in the background is the demonic, power-seeking tiger Shere Khan, who is dead-set on sinking his teeth into the preteen ‘man-cub.’ As tensions begin to boil over among the animals and the political structure of the jungle wavers, Mowgli must use his unique, dual identity to bring justice and peace to the jungle.
Plot sound familiar? That’s probably because it is exactly the same. If you’ve had the pleasure of seeing “The Jungle Book,” released two years prior to “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle,” you’ll likely spend the first half of the film searching for some sliver of variation, convinced that there must be some key, defining element that sets Netflix’s latest release apart from its predecessor. While “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle,” does introduce the minor new development of Mowgli’s interaction with human society, it is by no means sufficient to pass the film off as a fresh take on the 2016 rendering.
Aside from its recognizable plot, this film fails to market to a clear audience. With a PG-13 rating, a significant chunk of viewers who might actually enjoy the film are completely cut out from the potential viewing pool. And for good reason, because this is not really a family friendly film. Shere Khan is sinister, cruel and has a grin that could send chills down a millennial-aged man’s spine. Not to mention, the drunken, sadistic hunter, Lockwood (Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”), who adds another degree of terror to the film. In one of the most horrific scenes, Mowgli happens upon his sweet, innocent wolf-pal Bhoot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, “Alice Through the Looking Glass”), stuffed, glossy-eyed and frozen on Lockwood’s mantel (so not child-friendly!). If not directed at families with kids, the only real group of movie-goers that remains is anyone 13+, a majority that would almost certainly shut their laptop screens out of boredom 10 minutes into the film.
Yes, the Jungle Book is a beloved narrative and it has stood the test of time, proven through the engaging visuals and properly balanced fear-factor of the 2016 adaptation. That said, in the two years that have passed since the adaptation’s success, the demand for more “Jungle Book” content simply is not there. Netflix’s attempt to force another version of Mowgli’s coming-of-age is an unwelcome attempt at rebooting a classic without revamping its content. We didn’t ask for it and we certainly don’t need to waste a weekend movie night in order to realize that we don’t want it.