Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sun Dec 09, 2018 5:14 pm 
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RONAN CHAND IN MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE

Jungle vs. book

My paternal grandmother was born in 1870 and therefore was a young woman when Kipling's classic, The Jungle Book, was published in 1894. I am sure she read it to my father, and it was decades later when she read it to me, from the same book, at her house in the country, Immokalee, on the porch. (Other books that had been read to him, like Stevenson's Kidnapped, my father later read to me.) I don't remember much about Mowgli, just the name, and a haunting sense of the jungle boy raised by wild beasts but later returned to the human world.

It's Riki-Tikki-Tavi, the little mongoose that braved and defeated the big bad cobras, who made the deep impression on me. I was not blind even as a small child to the magic of Kipling's storytelling, his confident evocations of Indian names and places that he knew, evidently, from his own childhood, which now I know played into the themes in the stories of adoption and revolt, loyal allies and irrevocable rules. I also learned, at age seven, what a mongoose was.

There are at least eight previous films with "Jungle Book" in the title, from 1942, 1967, 1976; 1994, 1997,1998, 2003, and 2016. And that's not all: those are only the ones in English, or with those words in the title. There is one called "Маугли" ("Mowgli"), a Russian animation. Disney has had its imprimatur on several, such as the 1994 version, with a hunky Jason Scott Lee as Mowgli. Diid Mowgli ever grow up? There he did. I imagine Mowgli as a wild boy, with animal muscle and cunning, but not quite a man. The actor Sabu, who lived only 39 years, from 1924 to 1963, is perfect for the physical role, and played it in the 1942 version. You can watch the whole Sabu movie on YouTube.

Mowgli is a wild child, a savage boy, raised by wolves, who thinks himself a wolf, but is forced - unwillingly - to admit he's a man. In fact he doesn't quite fit into either world, jungle or village, wolf or man. He's a misfit. But he's human. And he is the vehicle for many moral lessons Kipling teaches us.

Andy Serkis, the Brit king of motion capture impersonations (the "Rings" Gollum, the "Apes" Caesar, among many) , has directed this latest version. Of critters he is master, but as a director he's a fledgling; this is only his third feature. He touts it as closer than most to the original book. It is harsher than most. For example, when Shere Khan, the evil tiger, blocks and confronts Mowgli, he takes his long-nailed paw and tears a nasty rip in Mogli's left arm, drawing dark blood and leaving a big scar that never disappears. Serkis' film excels in the vividness and clarity of its animals, who are somehow more than usually embodied by the actors who voice them (I don't understand this, or know if it matters). Mowgli, in the story, washes out as a wolf in the coming-of-age chase, where the young wolf cubs go for a run and the tigers try to capture them. This chase is fast, brutal, and terrifying in Serkis' version.

In this element his film excels, as it does in state-of-the-art sequences of jungle and mountain landscape, panoramas like the one of chaotic gangs of monkeys milling about on a cliff side, and the great, sensitive faces of wolves, tigers, hyena, giant cobra peering into the camera. This new film strives for a splendid, vivid physicality. It's also fast-paced, intense and scary. (You will notice the Sabu version is sometimes pleasantly becalmed.)

In the headlong rush, unfortunately details of Mowgli's story are left out. The village section, and Mowgli's adoption by the village couple, is minimal and unmemorable. Mowgli stays fixed, once he's beyond cub stage, at puberty level, a scrawny, if energetic, adolescent. Surprisingly, Rohan Chand, who plays him, though he looks like a 150% Indian fifth grader, was born in New York City, and has played in a series of Hollywood films, Jack And Jill, the Showtime series "Homeland," Lone Survivor, Bad Words, Welcome to the Jungle. He's very good, more of an actor than Sabu was. I love Sabu, though: his limitations as an actor are part of is charm. One can't see Rohan Chand's Mowgli as very far along toward becoming a man.

Serkis is well connected, and so he has recruited a star-studded cast of voice actors (enlisted also to do their own animal characters' motion-capture, in some cases), like Christian Bale, Cate Blanchet, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Mullan, Naomie Harris of Moonlight, and Tom Hollander to voice animal parts. Freida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire plays Mowgli's adoptive mother, Messua. They're good, of course, but they also get a bit lost in the heavy jungle action of the film, its powerful physicality.

This new version of Kipling excels uniquely in its narrow range. The landscapes of jungle, plain, and mountain are often handsome without being over-pretty. But in telling a fun story, it falls short. It's too brutal and terrifying for a a child of seven - who, I can attest, will enjoy the book. And the village scenes are disappointing, the villagers unimpressive, probably because the movie was not shot in India. To lose the flavor of India and the Raj is a big subtraction from Kipling. But Serkis has also subtracted much of the sweetness, which is not only in the Disney versions, but the original tales. Like so many film adaptations of classic books, this one reminds us why the book has so often been adapted - and why the book is better and richer than any of them.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, 104 mins., debuted theatrically in India 27 Nov. 2018 and in the US and UK 29 Nov., with wide release on the Internet (Netflix) 7 Dec. 2018. Screened Sun., 9 Dec. at the Landmark Shattuck Theater, Berkeley in an empty theater. Metascore 54.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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