After years in limbo, Andy Serkis' Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle has swung over to Netflix, where damaged-goods studio castoffs like The Cloverfield Paradox get treated as events. But here's the good news: I found Mowgli magnificent, the best kiddo adventure movie I've seen this year, a spirited pulp extravaganza of surprising thematic weight. The first few scenes are at times unpromising, especially an impromptu meeting of talking wolves and bears and big cats on what looks like the coronation rock from The Lion King. But once its story (written by Callie Kloves) takes hold, the movie purrs right along -- until it builds in its last third to a pained, powerful roar. Like its hero, it's caught between childhood play and the vicious reality of life as a hunter.
The setup is the same as usual in Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book-land. Feral human boy Mowgli (played with snarling buoyancy by Rohan Chand) must learn the law of the jungle from his animated animal pals, in this case the black panther Bagheera (Christian Bale), the laid-back brown bear Baloo (Serkis) and that python with its own mysterious agenda, Kaa (Cate Blanchett). This time, though, the lessons are urgent, the jungle threatened by man, the wicked tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) a true terror vowing to one day taste that boy's blood. Serkis, of course, played Gollum and King Kong for Peter Jackson, and he seems to have picked up that director's best habits (compositions emphasizing the mythic, a rigorous clarity of action even as the camera wheels about, an inventive sadism) but not his bad ones (that relentless zeal to overstuff, overstate, over-dazzle).