‘Mowgli’: A Gloomier ‘Jungle Book’ Finally Sees the Light of Day

Posted December 1, 2018 6:53 p.m. EST

Finding a preteen lead who can carry a big-budget, effects-heavy movie doesn’t sound like a simple feat. But casting Rohan Chand might have been the easiest part of completing Netflix’s new “Jungle Book” adaptation, “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.”

“I would love to say we searched through thousands of people to find him, but that’s not the case,” the film’s director, Andy Serkis, said in a phone interview. “He was the third person who read for the role. We were very lucky.”

Nearly everything else about finishing the film, which debuted Thursday in select theaters and goes to Netflix on Dec. 7, has been a struggle that included extensive delays, surprise competition, talks with multiple directors, ownership changes and a distribution plan that was still in flux less than a month ago.

By the time this latest version of the beloved Rudyard Kipling story hit screens, it was nearly seven years in the making. Serkis, for whom the film was supposed to be his big directorial debut, directed and released an entire other feature in the time he worked on “Mowgli.” Chand, who was 10 at his casting, is now 14.

Originally a Warner Bros. production, “Mowgli” was conceived as a complex, big-budget hybrid of live-action photography and motion-capture animation, aimed at wide theatrical release. Reports surfaced in April 2012 that the studio was in talks with Steve Kloves, who wrote the “Harry Potter” screenplays, to write, direct and produce. (Kloves’ daughter Callie Kloves eventually wrote it.)

But by July 2013, the production encountered its first major setback: Disney announced it was making its own “Jungle Book” hybrid. Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) was later named director.

The twin film phenomenon isn’t terribly rare — examples include the Truman Capote biopics “Capote” (2005) and “Infamous” (2006) and the romantic comedies “No Strings Attached” and “Friends with Benefits,” both from 2011. For two major studios to develop the same book concurrently is less common, but “The Jungle Book” is public domain. And Disney, which released an animated version in 1967, had the resources and brand history to do a new version confidently, and quickly.

“Disney is a behemoth in the world of family films, and audiences already associate the ‘Jungle Book’ story with the studio,” said Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com. “So moving ahead with a big-budget adaptation, while another studio was doing their own version, was a risk worth taking. And with a global box office gross of $967 million, I’d say it paid off like gangbusters.”

By December 2013, Warner Bros.’ plans appeared to have changed. The studio was widely reported to be in talks with Alejandro G. Iñárritu (“The Revenant”) to direct. A few months later, reports indicated that Iñárritu was out and Ron Howard might be in.

He wasn’t. That April, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Serkis, who was best known for his motion-capture acting in “Lord of the Rings” and “Planet of the Apes,” had been hired.

But the race with Disney was on. “It seemed like every time we announced a piece of casting, Disney announced a piece,” Serkis said. “I’m sure they were feeling the same thing: Who’s going to get their film out first?”

Still, Serkis said he felt confident he was making a totally different movie: His vision was darker, ultimately earning a PG-13 rating for intense violence. In his New York Times review, Glenn Kenny said it had “a lot more dirt, blood and death in it than any movie from the Kipling source I’ve seen.”

Serkis said, “Ours was never going to be a bring-the-whole-family film. We wanted to make it more visceral and have you be able to smell the jungle.”

Serkis assembled an impressive ensemble to record the voices, body movements and facial expressions of the characters, including Christian Bale as Bagheera the panther, Cate Blanchett as Kaa the python and Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan the tiger. Serkis plays Baloo the bear.

In part because of the hybrid animation’s complexity, Serkis said he quickly realized that beating Disney would almost certainly not happen. Favreau’s PG-rated “Jungle Book,” which featured limited use of performance-capture technology, debuted in April 2016. It was a huge hit, and Warner Bros. decided to delay Serkis’ film until fall 2018.

The studio briefly broughtin director Alfonso Cuarón (“Gravity”) to explore a more family-friendly treatment of the material, but “that didn’t work out,” Serkis said. Serkis meanwhile acted in “War for the Planet of the Apes” and “Black Panther.” Last year, he made his directorial debut, but it wasn’t “Mowgli.” It was “Breathe,” a love story starring Claire Foy and Andrew Garfield.

“There was a period of craziness,” Serkis said. “At certain points I was editing both ‘Breathe’ and ‘Jungle Book’ at the same time. There were times when I was doing visual effects until 2 or 3 in the morning and then getting up at 5 to work on ‘War for the Planet of the Apes.'”

But the setbacks weren’t over. Serkis had almost completed his final cut on “Mowgli” this summer when word came from Warner Bros. that “Mowgli” had been sold to Netflix.

“Of course, I was shocked,” Serkis said. “It was so out of the blue, and I had no prior reason to believe it was going to be anything but a Warner Bros. film.” Warner Bros. declined to comment on the reasons for the sale. But the studio has seen expensive, effects-driven fantasies like “Pan” and “Jack the Giant Slayer” deliver undersized box-office returns in recent years. There was also, perhaps, the matter of perception.

“Disney’s version of ‘Jungle Book’ was remarkably successful, beyond all expectations,” said Pandya, of BoxOfficeGuru. “Anything was going to pale in comparison to that.”

The initial Netflix strategy, as it was announced in July, was to push the release until 2019, with undefined plans for a limited theatrical release. Early this month, Netflix changed the movie’s course yet again, bumping the release to this year, to lead with a theatrical debut. It is unclear what prompted the change (Netflix declined to comment on its decision), but Serkis was pleased.

“I said, ‘Look, this is a cinematic movie, and it deserves a cinema audience,'” he said. “And they have absolutely honored that.”

The vast majority of viewers, however, will see “Mowgli” online. The film’s star, Chand, a New York City native, said he was enthusiastic about the prospect.

“Netflix is the main way my generation consumes media,” he said. “Our goal was to have this movie seen by as many people as possible, so it’s great that Netflix bought it.” As for Serkis, he has moved on to other projects, including an adaptation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” that he is planning to produce and direct for Netflix.

“It’s in the early stages of development, so there are other films that will probably happen before it,” said Serkis, sounding a bit world-weary from his long “Mowgli” journey. “It’s another talking-animals movie, so I need to do something else in between, for sure.”