It's impossible not to keep comparing Serkis' version of this classic story to Disney's 2016 live-action remake of its own 1967 animated family favorite. In Disney's remake, the animals are remarkably photo-realistic. But Serkis is purposefully trying to achieve something entirely different. The motion capture is used to make the animal characters deeper, richer and almost more recognizably human.
This no doubt presents more of a challenge for the actors than straightforward voice work, and as a result the animals are expressive and affecting. They're more well-rounded and relatable than their Disney counterparts, even if they're not as instantly charming. Christian Bale's nuanced performance as Bagheera the panther and Benedict Cumberbatch's ferocity as tiger Shere Khan are standouts that translate particularly powerfully through the performance capture.
But as you'll have guessed from the film's title, it's not all about the animals. In Disney's version, Mowgli felt more like a narrative device drawing the animals of the jungle together so we could hear their stories. In Serkis' hands, Mowgli is less of an ensemble player. His character development is central to the plot, especially in the second half. The movie feels like a coming-of-age tale as the man-cub seeks to establish his identity as not quite human, not quite wolf -- simultaneously both and neither.
It did come as a surprise when, bang in the middle of the film, the plot veered wildly off course from the familiar narrative the Disney films established atop Kipling's work. Some may hate this startling divergence, but I enjoyed the sudden realization that I didn't know exactly what was going to happen next, especially after being lulled into a false sense of security by familiar opening scenes.
Serkis has made a visually arresting film that Netflix is lucky to have gotten its hands on. It has more than the bear necessities required to put it on your watch list, even if it is lacking the music.