Having made a fine art of performance capture roles such as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Caesar in the Planet of the Apes reboot, there’s a poetic logic in actor Andy Serkis making his directorial debut with Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. The latest adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic work, which releases on Netflix on December 7, uses performance capture technology to bring to life its key animal characters. Serkis, who was in India last week to promote the new film, talks about the darker, more complex themes of Mowgli’s story that his film highlights and why he isn’t worried about comparisons with the last big adaptation of The Jungle Book.
Adapting a beloved story for the big screen is never easy, especially when it’s one that has been adapted as many times as The Jungle Book and is written by a figure as contentious as Rudyard Kipling. What was on your mind when you began making Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle?
When I first started working on it, I was already working on another talking animals movie, George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Although I received the script, which was really beautiful and concentrated on the emotional journey of Mowgli, I had reservations about doing a story that Kipling had written. My attitude to him was informed by the notion of him being an imperialist and I had to really make my mind up about why I wanted to do this story. I knew the poems he had written such as The White Man’s Burden. I knew he was a complex person, but that he meant so many different things to different people. So yes, it was complex, but I wanted to use that complexity to tell the story. I think we’ve gone some way in our version to underpin it, just ever so slightly with the world of Kipling and what he represents, inside the metaphor of the world of talking animals and Mowgli’s emotional journey.
What is your earliest recollection of encountering The Jungle Book?
It was the 1967 animation (The Jungle Book by Walt Disney Productions) which I’m sure is most people’s first introduction. You love the story, the animal characters, Baloo for singing Bare Necessities. And then I started to read The Jungle Book and I thought that it was like an adult book in a way, you pick up a different thing each time.
Going in, had you already decided that you wanted to play Baloo?
I wasn’t actually going to play Baloo, when I first set out to direct the movie. Then I thought if I were to do it, I would make him more like one of Kipling’s military poem characters, like a vaudeville sergeant-major, but that’s tough. Baloo is the teacher, he’s employed to be the teacher of the wolf cubs, and even though he has an affection for Mowgli, he doesn’t show it that often. But you can see it when you have moments with him alone. So he’s very tough on them physically – he’s called Iron Paws – and I wanted to find a way of approaching the character that was closer to the book.
This production went through many changes, with many others being approached to make the film before you finally came on board. Did things settle down a bit after that?
Almost as soon as we started casting, we realised that there was another production (The Jungle Book, 2016). But, our production was the first out of the gate, there’s no disputing that. I think there were fears from the studio about who is going to make it over the finishing line, but one thing that I was very clear about — because I was using performance capture and we needed time to make that work in post-production — we didn’t want to race just to get the film finished. Also, ours was a live action movie, shot on location. It was a much darker story. We took our time in post-production and finally came out five years from when we began.
Do you think enough time has passed since the last film, for people to be ready to embrace your film?
I think they complement each other in a way. The new Disney film is for a full family audience. I think ours probably depends on what sort of parent you are. I think kids from 8-9 years of age can watch it, but maybe young kids might find this quite intense.