Since the 1967 classic first came out, there have been plenty of Jungle Book adaptations over the years, including a Disney live-action retelling of the beloved story in 2016. And now, actor and director Andy Serkis is adding another one to the list this fall with Mowgli, out Oct. 19. If you're raising your eyebrows at the idea of yet another version of the classic tale, Serkis hears you — but he believes that Mowgli stands out from the Jungle Book pack.
“I think if you were to put this next to the Disney one, you wouldn’t even think that they’re the same story. They operate in completely different spheres," says Serkis, speaking to Bustle over the phone in May. And besides, he adds, “Any classic piece of work... is worthy of reinterpretation. How many Hamlets have we seen? I’ve seen Mark Rylance play Hamlet. I’ve seen James McAvoy play Hamlet. I’ve seen Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet. How many Spider-Man movies have there been in the last decade?”
Although audiences have indeed seen adaptations of The Jungle Book many times before, Serkis promises that Mowgli is a grittier take on the story than its predecessors. The director, who also plays Baloo in the film, chose to focus the movie on Mowgli's (Rohan Chand) journey of figuring out his identity. “It’s a very personal part of the story for me, the sense of not being of one place or another and discovering one’s identity,” explains Serkis.
In the exclusive trailer for the film above, you can see how Mowgli struggles with the power dynamics of the jungle. The child comes face-to-face with fearsome Shere Khan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), while grappling with being an outcast trying to find his place in the world — not quite fitting in with the animals or humans. When Akela (voiced by Tom Hollander) says, “You have become a man now, Mowgli,” the protagonist denounces this, stating that he’s “not a man, neither am I a wolf.”
According to Serkis, it was important to show a side to Mowgli’s story that questions what it means to be a part of both worlds. “You’re seeing [Mowgli] not only come to grips with the fact that he is this orphaned child brought up by the wolves and believes himself to be a wolf, but at a certain, sort of tender point in his adolescence, he realizes that he is other, and that he has been forced, for his own safety, to live in the world of man," the director explains. "We really haven’t seen that side of the movie or that side of the story or the books where he has to engage in the laws and customs, ways and beings of mankind.”
Fans of the original collection of Jungle Book stories will remember that they did indeed focus on Mowgli’s interactions with the laws of the jungle as he navigated his place within its hierarchy. Serkis says he wanted to pay homage to author Rudyard Kipling, and that this new version is “much closer in tone to [Kipling’s] original book.” That homage included delving deeper into the setting of 19th century India than ever done in a Jungle Book adaptation before. “In the versions that we’ve seen, that has been completely forgotten," Serkis explains. "It feels like entertainment has been the main objective in the past few versions, whereas this is much more of a visceral, personal story of someone who is ‘other.’”
Of course, no version of The Jungle Book would be complete without a group of A-list actors voicing roles. Serkis' own part of Baloo was a clear fit for the actor, given his reputation as the master of motion capture roles (most notably as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films. Meanwhile, 14-year-old newcomer Chand acts alongside Christian Bale as Bagheera, Cate Blanchett as Shere Khan, and Freida Pinto as Messua, who's one of the few human characters in the story. “They were all blown away by him,” says Serkis of Chand. “In that way that young actors can do, they can bring out the best in mature actors.”
With its stellar cast and a darker take on a well-loved story, Mowgli might surprise audiences in the same way.