Hollywood is no stranger to parallel thinking — or parallel movies, as evidenced by a slew of similar films that hit the big screen around the same time, from “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” to “Volcano” and “Dante’s Peak,” even “Striptease” and “Showgirls.” Rudyard Kipling’s classic story “The Jungle Book” was headed to a similar fate in 2016, when Disney and Warner Bros. both set release dates for their own (very different) movie versions of the oft-adapted tale.
Eventually, the Andy Serkis-directed “Mowgli,” the darker of the two films, moved to October 2018, while Jon Favreau’s more light-hearted “The Jungle Book” opened in April of 2016, making almost a billion dollars in the process. But don’t worry about Serkis’ film — which features a stacked cast of performance-captured talent, including Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Naomie Harris, Jack Reynor, and Serkis himself — which is set to open later this year, bolstered by the addition of two more years’ worth of work.
“It has been a curious journey, for sure,” Serkis told IndieWire in a recent interview. “We started off before Disney, and our script was commissioned, and then we suddenly were in a race…We decided that it was kind of pointless to put the films out at the same time. We could’ve done it, but it seemed unfair. This needed more oxygen, really. So we took the time to carry on refining the story.”
The two-year pause allowed Serkis and his team to further work on the film, one that hinges on the benefits of constantly evolving technology.
“Some of the software simulations that the animators used for fur and for muscle simulation for the way the animals and so on, that is constantly changing and moving,” he said. “We did re-shoots, we did pickups, we did more facial capture, and I think we made the story a lot better for it. Everything fell into place. In fact, it’s worked out for the best, really.”
Refining the performance-capture elements of the film, the very look and feel of the animals that become both Mowgli’s (Rohan Chand) companions and enemies, is essential to the story. It just doesn’t work without it, and Serkis aimed for “emotional believability” that could allow his audience to connect with what Mowgli was connecting with on screen.
“The most crucial thing when I came on board was to get the design of the animals right, because I didn’t want to have this strange disconnect between a photo-real-looking animal and then a voice in a booth,” Serkis said. “Talking animals are not hard to pull off, [but] they’re hard to make feel totally emotionally believable and connected. You can make anything look like it’s talking, but it doesn’t have anything behind it. It’s not filled with soul.”
Serkis said that their finalized approach to the animal characters involved a blending of sorts, combining performance-capture with images of actual animals. The aim was to give human elements to real animals, without feeling weird or fake or — God forbid — falling into the Uncanny Valley were nothing looks right (and, oftentimes, just feels wrong).
“If you imagine, on the lefthand side you’ve got Christian Bale and on the righthand side you’ve got an image of a panther, then you take Christian Bale’s face and you start to morph that towards the panther and back the other way from the panther towards Christian Bale,” Serkis explained. “And then somewhere along that spectrum, you will find a sweet spot where you absolutely see both. That was kind of the big breakthrough for us.”
It’s fitting that Serkis, an actor so beloved for his work in boundary-pushing performance-capture, would turn his directorial attention to a film like “Mowgli.” He’s hopeful that these kind of roles are destined for more attention, too, including some love from the Academy itself.
“I know that there have been lots of debate, lots of discussion, about acknowledging what is an award-worthy performance,” Serkis said. “And certainly performance capture is now accepted as such. People are beginning to understand that it is the authoring of a role in exactly the same way as it would be in a live-action movie and your face was on screen. The process of acting and creating that role is exactly the same.”
Despite the technological demands of the film, Serkis said that it is still grounded by the same kind of concerns that run through movies that don’t include talking panthers, scheming tigers, and friendly bears. At its heart, it’s a human story.
“It’s a PG-13 movie, but it is a family movie in the sense that you can watch this film and relate to it, and hopefully there are layers there which will appeal to all ages,” Serkis said. “These stories are about the human condition, and using these metaphors powerfully, I think, is what we’re here to do. I think we’re being more honest in this film, because other versions of this film tend to gloss over these things and make it seem pure entertainment, which this isn’t. That’s why it has its darkness and its edge.”
Check out the first trailer for “Mowgli” below.
“Mowgli” hits theaters on October 19.