Taking on the jungle challenge in new Netflix flick

The release of his grittier version of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’ on Netflix reflects the changing landscape of filming, Andy Serkis tells Ed Power.

Mowgli, played by Neel Sethi, with Raksha, voiced by Lupita Nyong’o, in ‘Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle’. Picture: Disney Enterprises

When Andy Serkis looks you in the eye, it’s impossible not to see someone else staring back.

That someone, of course, is Gollum, the depraved, slouching villain from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, in whom Serkis imbued a searing humanity.

What made Gollum such a landmark creation was that, in his portrayal of the skittering, ghoulish monster, Serkis went beyond the traditional latex and make-up and instead utilised cutting-edge CGI.

He acted in a body-suit, over which a special effects team then filled in the horrid, nasty details.

This “performance capture” technique, pioneered in LotR and perfected with his turns as noble ape Caesar in the Planet of the Apes remakes and Supreme Leader Snoke in Disney’s Star Wars sequels, stands as one of the most singular achievements in recent blockbuster cinema.

On a rainy afternoon in central London, however, Serkis is minded to downplay it.

“If you are moved by a character, it shouldn’t matter if it’s make-up, such as what Gary Oldman wore in Darkest Hour, or performance capture,” he says.

It’s the performance that wins over the audience or doesn’t. There isn’t a mystery to performance capture — you don’t have to learn a whole new craft. It’s pure acting.

Serkis’s pioneering work has not always received the attention it merited. It was felt, for instance, that he should have received Oscar nods for Gollum and for Caesar.

So he is cheered that the academy has indicated it is now open to putting forward performance capture for nomination (it has written to its acting branch saying it has a duty to acknowledge acting in “its broadest sense”).

“You are still using your humanity in your approach to build a character,” he says.

“The academy has announced they are widening the remit as to what is considered acting. With performance capture you don’t have the assistance of costume. You are drawing from yourself. It is particularly challenging.”

Serkis has stepped behind the camera for his latest project, a retelling of Kipling’s The Jungle Book entitled Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle ( he also plays Baloo the bear).

Hang on, you’re probably wondering. Wasn’t there already a rebooted Jungle Book movie — with Idris Elba as the evil Shere Khan and Billy Murray as Baloo?

Well yes, there was. Disney’s plans for a live-action Kipling movie, utilising performance capture CGI, came as news to Serkis, who had already signed on to direct his own telling of the classic story for Warner Brothers.

He had assembled a top-rank cast too — Benedict Cumberbatch as the tiger Shere Khan, Cate Blanchett as Kaa the python, Christian Bale as Bagheera the black panther and Dubliner Jack Reynor as a wolf.

For a while, acknowledges Serkis, there was a mad dash to be first to the box office.

“When I was lined up to direct it… that’s when we heard the other one was going into production,” he says.

“There was a race to be first for a while. It’s not the first time two films with the same theme come out at the same time. But I knew our version was going to be a completely different take.”

By “different take”, he means that his vision of Kipling is far closer to the gritty spirit of the original stories.

Jon Favreau’s 2016 Jungle Book was cuddly and declawed — a Disney-fied revision of Kipling’s rumination on identity, colonialism and man’s place in the natural world.

Serkis’ Mowgli is, by contrast, mucky and bloody. The animal protagonists are tooth and claw creations — not quite scary but certainly a manifestation of the innate savagery of nature.

“When I was presented with the script, what I saw was something very close to the tone of the book.

“It was about a young boy caught between two worlds — a boy trying to discover his place. That’s a very complex journey, emotionally and psychologically. The tone was going to be slightly darker. The jungle is a place of beauty sure. But also a place of great danger.”

Andy Serkis in London for a special screening of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. Photo: David Parry/PA Wire

Brexit and Donald Trump were mere blips on the horizon when filming wrapped in late 2015. Yet the allegorical undertones of the film don’t need to be elaborated upon.

As an outsider raised in the jungle, the young Mowgli (Rohan Chand) is treated with huge suspicion when he walks into a village. He is caged and glared at — a manifestation of the ‘other’.

“If you look at the divisions that have happened, the amount of hate crime, the return of populism… I think this film does resonate,” say Serkis, a vocal opponent of Brexit.

When Mowgli comes to the village and tries to assimilate he is put in a cage and kids throw stones at him. That feels very contemporary in that it speaks to this fear of the other.

Until several months ago, Mowgli was set for a big cinematic release. Serkis had even started talking to Warners about how to best promote it.

Then he got a call from executives at the studio: Netflix had offered to buy the movie, which means it would premiere there (with a limited theatrical release).

He was initially a bit non-plussed. However, he eventually came around to the studio’s perspective. Which is why, this Friday, it debuts on the service.

“The landscape of filming is changing so drastically. And the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. I thought this film would have more of an international audience than a typical four-quadrant blockbuster.

"It was quite a natural transition in a way — to open to a global audience of 190 countries.”

Serkis will also be working with Netflix on his long-mooted adaptation of Orwell’s Animal Farm, which will again utilise performance capture and which is to be set in contemporary America.

One project he won’t be involved with, though, is Amazon’s Lord of the Rings TV series. Gollum changed his life but he’s happy to leave the character behind in the depths of Mount Doom.

“I feel that chapter is closed, “he says. “I was very happy to be a part of it. But it’s time for a new generation to take it on.”

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle debuts on Netflix today.


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