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Netflix’s Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle proves animals shouldn’t have people faces

This Jungle Book adaptation sat on a shelf for years. It’s pretty obvious why.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle
This is, uh, one of the more convincing shots in the movie.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, new original films debut on Netflix and other streaming services, often to much less fanfare than their big-screen counterparts. Cinemastream is Vox’s series highlighting the most notable of these premieres, in an ongoing effort to keep interesting and easily accessible new films on your radar.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

The premise: The umpteenth cinematic retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, this Andy Serkis-directed venture follows on the heels of Disney’s 2016 version of the tale of Mowgli (Rohan Chand), a young foundling who is raised by jungle animals, learns to speak to them, and wrestles with the divide between his humanity and his animal nature — to say nothing of a ferocious tiger named Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch).

What it’s about: There’s a reason people keep adapting The Jungle Book — it’s fun to see a little kid run around with big animals, and Kipling’s characterization of paternal Bagheera the panther (Christian Bale), bumbling Baloo the bear (Serkis), and whispering python Kaa (Cate Blanchett), along with many other animals, has stood the test of time. Strip away the book’s colonialist tendencies, which are much harder to stomach in post-colonialist 2018, and you’ve still got a kid, some animals, and a lesson about accepting your responsibilities as you grow toward adulthood.

This particular adaptation has sat on the shelf for years and years — Netflix actually purchased it from Warner Bros., which was happy to write off an expensive boondoggle —partially thanks to the success of Disney’s 2016 Jungle Book film, which won an Oscar for its visual effects and made loads of money at the box office.

Mowgli technically went into production before the 2016 Jungle Book, but its effects — which rely heavily on motion-capture performances, where human actors wear special gadgetry that allows their movements and facial expressions to translate to the computerized animals onscreen — took more time to finish. (The production process of this film sounds incredibly laborious.)

Surely Serkis, an acknowledged master of motion capture, who created the roles of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and Caesar in the new Planet of the Apes trilogy, would use his considerable talent to create a film that ...

The Jungle Book Netflix

Well, that’s an isolated shot from ...

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle Netflix

They can’t have tried to paste human faces and expressions onto animals, right? They wouldn’t have ... it would be so ...

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle Netflix

Okay. No. I don’t like ... it’s really making me uncomfortable. I ...

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle Netflix


Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle Netflix


Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle Netflix


Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle Netflix

Look: Before you even get to Mowgli’s story (which does some interesting things — especially with its attempts to center Mowgli’s experiences and dissect colonialism via a British dude played by Matthew Rhys, who just shows up two-thirds of the way through the movie — but is also surprisingly dark and cluttered, with no clear throughline), you have to wade through a whole bunch of effects that feel ... abandoned before they were fully baked.

Motion capture is a great way to achieve certain effects. But it turns out when you use it to graft human expressions onto animals, you end up with the first movie to star an all-Tuunbaq cast.

Critical consensus: Mowgli boasts a 55 out of 100 at Metacritic, where a couple of reviews praise the movie’s dark wildness. But its reception is much better characterized by the complaints of Indiewire’s Kate Erbland, who writes: “For every big cat who looks ready to jump off the screen, there’s a wolf that appears bizarrely unfinished.”

Where to watch: Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is streaming on Netflix.

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