Andy Serkis on how Mowgli grapples with Kipling’s colonialist view of India
When Andy Serkis decided to take on Netflix’s Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle as his directorial debut, he surely knew it wasn’t going to be easy. After all, a performance-capture live-action version of the classic Rudyard Kipling book, with a blockbuster budget, all-star cast, and a darker take on the story for any director would be a challenge, let alone one with limited experience behind the camera.
Serkis was going to be hard—but did it have to be this hard? After they had already started working on Mowgli, Disney fast-tracked an eerily similar remake of its own Jungle Book cartoon, releasing it first and making a billion dollars in the process. Not many films could follow that.
Meanwhile, Mowgli struggled to make its sizable ambitions work. It had animation that was based on its accomplished actors’—Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Serkis himself—physical performances, rather than voices added to cartoons. In fact, Serkis decided that the film’s performances would be done all together, almost like theater.
“You can get afraid that the technology is going to take over, and what was great about this was we had everyone in the room together, and it was a very authentic performance. We all had to react to each other and listen to each other. It goes back to the basics of acting. Give 100% to the performance. Don’t rely on the technology to enhance your performance in any way, and then it can only be better,” says Eddie Marsan, an old friend of Serkis’ who plays Vihaan, the wolf who adopts Mowgli.
Mowgli also had a version of the story that truly had something to say—but was perhaps less marketable than the pure nostalgia cash grab/love letter that Disney released. Serkis even grappled with the legacy of the book’s author, Rudyard Kipling, who many have pointed out brought an outdated colonialist attitude towards India. Serkis was conscious of those problems, and made a film in dialogue with them.
“One of the things that we had to really consider when taking this job on was, what does Kipling mean in the world today? How is he viewed? Obviously he was an incredibly popular writer of his time—the most beloved author of his generation. But of course, he was a child of the British Empire, and he had colonialist attitudes,” says Serkis.
“We embraced that in the storytelling of this film. One of the characters, the hunter, which was actually written as an Indian character, we made into a white hunter. It was really to bring in that sense of understanding India’s place in colonialism. We see how the jungle is being encroached by man, which is also a representation of Imperialist England, but he’s also a white hunter collecting and trophy-izing jungle animals.”
Though Serkis dismisses the outmoded imperialist attitude, he doesn’t dismiss Kipling entirely.
“Looking at Rudyard Kipling as a child is very complex. Like the rest of this story it’s all about dual identity, and all about finding where you belong. Kipling was brought up in India, and Hindi was his first language. He considered it his first language, and his home. Then he was sent away to England when he was about 7 or 8 years old and he had a terribly brutal upbringing in a boarding house and actually yearned for this sense of home. He’s a very complicated complex man, in what he stands for and how he’s viewed now,” Serkis says.
Serkis added another challenge for himself early on—rather than just directing, he’d also be playing one of the story’s central character, Baloo, the bear.
“We’d cast all the other animals. I wasn’t intending to play Baloo actually. I wasn’t intending to be in it because I knew I’d have my hands full directing. The producers were all staring at me and said, Andy, it seems a bit crazy that you’re doing a performance capture movie and you’re not even going to be in it! I said, yeah, maybe I should,” says Serkis.
“Then I decided that I had a really strong take on how I wanted Baloo to be played if it was going to be played by someone else or if I was to play it. In the book, he’s very much the teacher—the survivalist. He’s very much the Bear Grylls of the time, he teaches the kids how to fight. He’s like a sort of gym instructor or drill sergeant who puts them through their paces. He really wants them to survive—that’s all he his job is. He does have affection for Mowgli, but he doesn’t show it too much.”
Though Serkis’ face is more recognizable these days, especially after his turn in 2018’s monster hit Black Panther, it was his performance capture work that garnered him a dedicated following, starting with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and peaking with his turn as Caesar in the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy, a role for which many clamored that he should receive an Oscar.
In playing Baloo, the performance-capture master made sure to find the human side of his animal, rather than just shallowly imitate the animal’s movements.
“Every single character is different. When you’re taking on a performance capture role, and you’re playing an animal like an ape, or in this case with Baloo, a bear, you’re not just focusing on the animal side of it. It’s all about personality and character, because you’re anthropomorphizing these characters, you’re bringing in human psychology and emotion into it. Especially from Mowgli’s point of view, these are his family. It’s not like they’re learning to speak like in the [Planet of the] Apes movies, that’s their language that they speak,” Serkis says.
“You’re really trying to find the quintessence of the character, and what’s at the heart of the character For Baloo it was this sense of duty, I suppose. Going back to Kipling, I based him very much on some of Kipling’s poems about the military and soldiers, called the Barrack-Room Ballads. I wanted to incorporate some of that into this.”
In the end, after five years, Serkis made the film he intended to make—a grimmer, headier version of the classic story—sometimes brutal, sometimes transcendent. While it may not have been intended to end up on Netflix, that is the best home for something to be discovered for years to come across the world.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is now streaming on Netflix.