WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, streaming now on Netflix.
In the many adaptations of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, most have diluted the writer's vision. His stories were originally influenced by personal experiences growing up in both India and Britain. These stories had autobiographical elements to them, as Kipling, born to English diplomats and educated in both countries, felt like a child torn between two worlds, ergo why he crafted the man-cub Mowgli.
This is why, as dark as the Netflix version -- Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle -- is, its deep messages reflect many of Kipling's views during this era. In doing so, while we don't get the warmth and fun of Disney, we do get a film that prides itself on these political perspectives, which ends up being its strongest point.
Kipling died in 1936, but he lived at a time when India was trying to gain independence from Britain. This would occur 11 years later, but throughout his works, Kipling clearly viewed the Brits as colonizers and romanticized India deeply, hence the reason he created his jungle, which echoed India's caste system. Still, like Mowgli, he felt at home there despite being an outsider, which stemmed from the awful time he spent in boarding school in England while his parents tended to work in India.
Director Andy Serkis doesn't sanitize this as he details Rohan Chand's journey as the man-cub. An Englishman himself, and quite liberal in his views, Serkis pulls no punches in addressing colonialism. When Mowgli is exiled from the jungle for using fire against Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) in an Indian village near the jungle, we're introduced to a new addition to the lore: John Lockwood (Matthew Rhys), named after Rudyard's dad. He pretends to be Mowgli's friend, but we soon discover he's using the villagers for their knowledge, hunting sacred animals for taxidermy. He keeps this secret and takes advantage of their ignorance and goodwill, which Mowgli discovers, encouraging him to turn on Lockwood.
One of these trophies is a tusk, and Serkis highlights that hunting elephants is a terrible practice because, among many other reasons, in this Hindu village, they are avatars of the god Ganesha. Serkis doesn't just tackle animal rights, but religion as well, which echoes Kipling's sentiments, as he too fell in love with Hinduism. Now, apart from Lockwood being a colonial hunter tricking the natives, we see how he's using up their resources, just like Britain did to India. Of course, knowing all this, Mowgli stops his training to be a hunter with Lockwood because he saw how the man was making Indians his puppets.
Serkis doesn't stop there. He goes deeper into slavery when he brings to light the truth about Bagheera (Christian Bale). The Disney takes left this out, but when a caged and violent Mowgli speaks to Bagheera about wanting to leave the prison of the man-village, the panther shows him his neck, and we see collar marks. Bagheera was a slave in an Indian palace, and now he's marshaling the jungle to ensure all animals can live free, especially from tyrants like Khan.
As stoic as he is, Bagheera exhibits a fear and vulnerability like never before, educating Mowgli on how grateful he should be to have a haven (albeit we didn't know about Lockwood at this point). Factoring in all this, Mowgli begins to understand that men are animals too, which paints a more nuanced story and helps differentiate it from the lighter versions.
Apart from Serkis recollecting the blight of colonialism, British rule and India's system of class and elitism, we also get into institutional politics as Khan manipulates the jungle's government to try to take over Akela's (Peter Mullan) wolf pack. The latter made the big decisions for everyone and Khan deploys treacherous tools to sow discord, get Mowgli exiled and seize power through a coup.
It reflects Kipling's stance on nations and their policies, as well as Serkis' own opinions, as he's always been an advocate for social justice without shady politics. Not exorcising these elements from the story didn't just paint a more intimidating and sinister Khan, it added political intrigue, strengthening Mowgli's adventure of self-discover and, in so doing, it offers us a true look through Kipling's lens.
Directed by Andy Serkis, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle stars Rohan Chand as Mowgli, with Christian Bale as Bagheera, Cate Blanchett as Kaa, Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan, Naomie Harris as Raksha, Freida Pinto as Messua and Andy Serkis as Baloo.