Last year, I commended Netflix for snapping up the international rights to the cerebral Natalie Portman-led sci-fi drama Annihilation as it was a sign that the streamer wanted to be taken seriously as a film studio. Now, in a considerable move up, the streamer is once again getting ambitious.
Deadline reports that Netflix has acquired the worldwide rights to Andy Serkis’ long-gestating take on Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, titled Mowgli. The darker re-imagining of the material is a CGI live-action mashup directed by Serkis and was scheduled to be released in theaters in October. Now, it’ll be headed to the streamer instead.
Mowgli has long been considered a risky bet given the worldwide success of Disney’s lighter The Jungle Book ($966 million). Both projects began development at around the same time, but after Disney beat WB to the punch, the studio decided to delay the release and has now shed itself of the gamble altogether.
The movie business may be cold, but it’s never impractical, and this will likely save WB money in the long run. This is a nice get for Netflix as the streamer now boasts a big-budget studio-made tentpole that was let go for industry reasons and not necessarily because of any internal flaws, such as when Netflix acquired the troubled Cloverfield Paradox from Paramount.
When Netflix acquired Annihilation, the company reportedly covered a big slice of the film’s $55 million budget. When it bought Paradox, it reportedly shelled out north of the film’s $40 million budget. We can assume Warner Bros. won’t lose money on Mowgli, and given Netflix’s endless budget, this was a move worth making. Though Serkis was hoping to show off innovative new 3D effects, this change will deliver Mowgli to a wider global audience.
In terms of a theatrical release, Serkis realized that Jon Favreau’s family-friendly version had hurt the prospects of his own darker take on the story. From a box office perspective, it’s possible that he could have been looking at a disappointment. As such, it sounds like he welcomes this change to better position his vision to succeed on a broad scale.
“I’m really excited about Netflix for Mowgli,” Serkis said. “Now, we avoid comparisons to the other movie, and it’s a relief not to have the pressure. I’ve seen the 3D version, and it’s exceptional, a different view from the 2D version, really lush and with great depth, and there will be some kind of theatrical component for that. What excites me most is the forward thinking at Netflix in how to present this, and the message of the movie. They understand this is a darker telling that doesn’t fit into a four quadrant slot. It’s really not meant for young kids, though I think it’s possible that 10 or above can watch it. It was always meant to be PG-13, and this allows us to go deeper, with darker themes, to be scary and frightening in moments. The violence between animals is not gratuitous, but it’s definitely there. This way of going allows us to get the film out without compromise.”
“I think this is their largest acquisition, it’s a big movie,” he continued. “But I never looked at it as a big blockbuster movie. It’s hard to quantify. It has the scale of a blockbuster, but it’s somewhere between Life of Pi and an Apes movie. It has that reality to it, same as Okja had. We are talking about 2019 and circling dates. Netflix has allowed the film making that I wanted to do, to exist, and they’ve created an atmosphere for [the] kind of storytelling I set out to do.“
Netflix simply can’t compete with the library of IP titles, such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, that major studios hold. It’s just smart practice for them to leap at the undervalued properties and talents that are out there. This helps bolster Netflix’s reputation as a home for somewhat non-mainstream content that can attract attention. Of course, that content actually needs to be good—The Cloverfield Paradox was a mess and the Will Smith Netflix original Bright quickly became a punchline—but at least this makes waves.
Mowgli features a voice cast that includes Christian Bale as panther Bagheera, Cate Blanchett as the snake Kaa, Benedict Cumberbatch as the tiger Shere Khan, Naoimie Harris as the wolf Nisha and Serkis as the bear Baloo. Netflix plans to release it sometime in 2019.