Mowgli set­tles in at Net­flix af­ter long, bumpy road

Times Colonist - - Arts - LIND­SEY BAHR

LOS AN­GE­LES — To say Andy Serkis has been through the ringer with his adap­ta­tion of Rud­yard Ki­pling’s The Jun­gle Book is a bit of an un­der­state­ment. It was al­ways go­ing to be an am­bi­tious pro­ject for a first-time di­rec­tor — dark, in­tense and more in the spirit of Ki­pling’s sto­ries, with a big stu­dio (Warner Bros.) be­hind it, a block­buster bud­get, A-list tal­ent to match, from Chris­tian Bale to Cate Blanchett, and all the high-pres­sure stakes that go along with that.

But five years ago when he signed up to di­rect, Serkis didn’t know that Walt Dis­ney Stu­dios would soon be an­nounc­ing its own live-ac­tion Jun­gle Book, which would beat his to the­atres by more than two years and be­come a nearly bil­lion-dol­lar box-of­fice sen­sa­tion. And no one would have guessed that at the 11th-hour this sum­mer, af­ter pro­mo­tions had al­ready be­gun, his own stu­dio would sell his ver­sion to Net­flix.

“This wasn’t the eas­i­est ride for any­body,” Serkis said on a re­cent af­ter­noon. “It re­ally did go through a mas­sively long jour­ney.”

Serkis was even able to di­rect an­other movie (Breathe) and star in at least one (War for the Planet of the Apes) dur­ing the post pro­duc­tion for Mowgli: Le­gend of the Jun­gle, which de­buted on the stream­ing ser­vice on Fri­day.

The af­fa­ble Serkis, kind and soft-spo­ken, who made his name as a pi­o­neer­ing tal­ent in mo­tion cap­ture per­for­mance in The Lord of the Rings, The Hob­bit and The Planet of the Apes films, is just ex­cited peo­ple are fi­nally go­ing to get to see his pas­sion pro­ject.

The Cal­lie Kloves-writ­ten screen­play takes the Mowgli myth away from the sunny, toe-tap­ping Dis­ney ver­sions and back to Ki­pling’s orig­i­nal vi­sion of the boy raised by wolves.

Ac­tor Ro­han Chand (Lone Sur­vivor) was brought on to lead the film at age 10 (he’s now 14), op­po­site heavy­weight ac­tors such as Bale, who plays Bagheera, Blanchett as Kaa, Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch as Shere Khan, Naomie Harris as Nisha and Serkis him­self as Baloo.

“I ac­tu­ally grew up read­ing Rud­yard Ki­pling short sto­ries,” Chand said. “I love Mowgli. He was al­most like my hero in a way.”

In or­der to see through Serkis’s grand vi­sion, Chand had to es­sen­tially shoot the film twice. First with the “A” tal­ent such as Bale and Cum­ber­batch, wear­ing mo­tion cap­ture tech on their faces and arms, and then again on lo­ca­tion with a dif­fer­ent set of ac­tors mim­ick­ing the move­ments of the jun­gle an­i­mals.

“Ro­han was ex­tra­or­di­nary,” Serkis said of his young star, whom he helped guide through some in­tense scenes, emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally. “He had to en­dure real phys­i­cal pain and a lot of tech­ni­cal chal­lenges which he did with great ease.”

For par­ents won­der­ing whether or not their young ones should watch, Serkis said it de­pends on you as a par­ent. The Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica gave it a PG-13 rat­ing.

“There is noth­ing in it that is gra­tu­itous. There is no vi­o­lence that is gra­tu­itous. It is the lore of the jun­gle and there is vi­o­lence and there is an­i­mal vi­o­lence but it is not overly gory and it’s not en­joy­ing it in a sala­cious way. It’s truth­ful sto­ry­telling and to­tally rep­re­sents the level of dark­ness that’s in the book,” Serkis said. “It’s an emo­tional story, it’s an in­tense story. That’s what sep­a­rates it from other ver­sions.”

Serkis was deep into plan­ning when Dis­ney’s ver­sion was an­nounced, and, al­though he knew the films would be quite dif­fer­ent, there was still pres­sure to be first. Once that “went away” when Dis­ney beat them to the­atres, Serkis said, they de­cided to take the time they needed to re­fine the story and get the per­for­mances and the tech­nol­ogy right.

The Net­flix switch was not a third act com­pli­ca­tion Serkis could have fore­seen, how­ever.

In April, Serkis and a few cast mem­bers were part of a mas­sive Warner Bros. pre­sen­ta­tion to the na­tion’s theatre ex­hibitors in Las Ve­gas. Then this sum­mer, on the last day of do­ing one of the fi­nal mixes for the film, he got a call from the stu­dio.

“They said, we’ve shown it to Net­flix. They re­ally love the movie and want to ac­quire it,” Serkis said. He was shocked.

Sell­ing a film to Net­flix is not an un­prece­dented move. Ear­lier this year, Para­mount sold the in­ter­na­tional rights for its Natalie Port­man film An­ni­hi­la­tion to Net­flix, and world­wide rights to The

Clover­field Para­dox. Uni­ver­sal made the same move with Ex­tinc­tion. It’s be­come a safe exit strat­egy for a ma­jor stu­dio con­cerned about a pos­si­ble un­der­per­former, and none of the afore­men­tioned films had a bil­lion-dol­lar Dis­ney suc­cess over­shad­ow­ing its re­lease, as Mowgli.

Still, Serkis had imag­ined a pre­mière at a ma­jor fes­ti­val, Cannes or Venice, and a big in­ter­na­tional the­atri­cal run. And then he started to see the sil­ver lin­ing in mak­ing his film im­me­di­ately avail­able to 117 mil­lion Net­flix sub­scribers in 190 coun­tries world­wide. It’s also play­ing in select the­atres, too.

“This could ac­tu­ally be the best thing for the film. It was not a straight up, four-quad­rant, pop­corn block­buster movie,” Serkis said. “Net­flix has a huge global reach … That it will be avail­able to the rest of the world im­me­di­ately is by far the best thing for the film to be seen by peo­ple.”

NET­FLIX

Ro­han Chand as Mowgli, left, and Nisha, voiced by Naomie Harris, in Mowgli: Le­gend of the Jun­gle.

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