Last Friday, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle finally arrived on Netflix. After a long and troubling production, Andy Serkis’ adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic story turned out to be quite different from what audiences were expecting—or maybe even what its creators had intended.
When the project’s original studio, Warner Bros., put Serkis at the helm way back in 2014, the future looked rather bright. Serkis’ unparalleled track record with motion capture technology—showcased in the Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes trilogies—paired with an A-list cast that starred Christian Bale as Bagheera, Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Kahn and Serkis himself as Baloo, promised nothing less than an immersing cinematic experience. A classic tale re-imagined for modern audiences.
But just as things seemed to be going well, Mowgli suffered a huge blow when it was forced out of the 2016 release window by Disney’s live action remake, The Jungle Book. The greater the success Disney’s version enjoyed—and at almost $1 billion worldwide, it enjoyed quite a bit of success—the less faith Warner Bros. had in its own. Serkis’ motion capture suffered from frequent budget downgrades, sloppy post-production, and ultimately a change in distribution. While Netflix saved Mowgli from disappearing into oblivion, there is no denying Serkis’ film, with all its special effects, was really made for the big screen, not phones and laptops.
It is easy to blame the financial and qualitative collapse of Serkis’ cherished pet project on the unfair competition against the corporate titan that is Disney, but we should not overlook the possibility that Mowgli may have been doomed from the moment it was first conceived as a dark, gritty reimagining of the man-cub story. In many ways, Mowgli is but a delayed next edition in the bandwagon of dark and gritty fairy tale reboots. Not so long ago, Hollywood studios, including Disney, were pumping out these films left and right. Tim Burton’s gonzo Alice in Wonderland in 2010 was followed by Rupert Sanders’ vanilla Snow White and the Huntsman in 2012 before Joe Wright capped it off with the downright dreadful Pan in 2015. It’s only in recent years that the production of these critical flops has simmered down, and that’s because audiences, agreeing with the critics, have stopped biting.
As much as people despise the Disney live action remakes for being the soulless cash grabs that they are, at least they stick to their old-but-gold source material. And their production value generally exceeds their dark, gritty counterparts by a wide margin, too. Indeed, the rising popularity of Disney’s live action remakes, and the downward-spiraling reception of dark reworkings, stand as testament to the clear popular opinion that fantasy should be light, uplifting, and above all un-realistic.