WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, streaming now on Netflix.
Netflix's Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle hews much closer to the dark vision of author Rudyard Kipling than previous adaptation attempts. Director Andy Serkies adapts The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book, fleshing out Mowgli's (Rohan Chand) journey of self-discovery to find out if he's man or wolf.
Serkis, as expected, focuses heavily on the feud between the man-cub and the vicious tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch). But what results is something filled with much more emotional depth than prior retellings have managed, giving us the best-ever interpretation of their rivalry.
Serkis sets the two on a collision course in the opening by depicting how Khan killed Mowgli's parents in a bloody assault. Khan soon recognizes Mowgli as the cub that got away, thus setting him off on his lifelong vendetta. Disney's 2016 movie tried to script a vendetta like this, with Khan resentful against humans for scarring him, but here the tiger believes it's about survival of the fittest. He thinks there's no animal equal to him, except the superior man, which is why he's been hunting them. Therefore, he sees Mowgli as fair game and his truest test, which is why, even seven years later, he thinks he's entitled to the lad.
This, in turn, shapes Mowgli's training in a much different way. He doesn't just train to fit in like all other stories we've seen him in; here he's training to become an equal to the tiger. He's still only a kid, which means he's an easy kill. The likes of Bagheera (Christian Bale) and Baloo (Serkis) want Mowgli to level up, so they put him through rigorous training sessions with his wolf pack, because they all know with Khan, an alpha predator, it's not a matter of if, but when he'll come for Mowgli.
And so, each party gets their nemesis, believing this impending showdown is their true destiny. Khan senses the boy is becoming a man, so he adapts as well, using his sly tongue to play politics with the wolf pack that raised and protects Mowgli. He incites an uprising against the leader, Akela (Peter Mullan), to weaken the group so he can get to Mowgli easier. It's obvious this isn't the Disney movie where Khan's a bully depending on brawn only; he's now using his brain. Khan even works against the jungle's overlord, Kaa, figuring out that once he kills the boy, whom they all see as a messiah, he'll be breaking their spiritual belief, allowing him to ascend the throne of the animal kingdom.
As both individuals gear up for this inevitable battle, however, we see Mowgli is also willing to break the rules and go to desperate measures. He tries to use the fire of man to defeat Khan, but it's a temporary victory, as he's exiled for breaking the jungle's laws. More so, this creates tension with those who want Akela's position. Khan ends up taking over due to this civil war, and Mowgli, after learning the ways of man back in their village, finally understands actions have consequences. After being bitter about his excommunication, he makes his first step into manhood by returning to right his wrong -- he fights Khan within the laws.
Clearly, this rivalry pushes both to their limit and evolves them: Khan goes from bloodthirsty predator to a mastermind, while Mowgli goes from innocent and disgraced to a mature warrior, finally understanding he's both man and wolf. As this occurs, he factors in several things before he decides to rashly kill his enemy: he knows it's attacking men and stirring animosity between the village and animals, he knows Khan's killing cattle and attacking elephants (Kipling's take on Britain's anti-Hindu stance), and, with murder weighing on his conscience, Mowgli understands what needs to be done.
He lays a trap, but it isn't that leaping-from-trees schtick or scaring Khan with fire gimmick from Disney's movies. The boy goes one-on-one, wielding a knife and eventually gutting his foe. However, in the end he shows his compassion and mercy, telling the fallen: "Go. Be angry no more," understanding Khan's need to climb to the top had him suffering on the inside. This left the boy compelled to free him, thereby exorcising his own hatred and exemplifying the adage that one's greatest foe should make them a better person.
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.