There is a down and dirty street fight a-rumblin’ between The Jungle Book and The Jungle Book: Origins. Both are adaptations of Rudyard Kipling’s classic boy-meets-bear novel “The Jungle Book.” Both are releasing within a year of each other, with the former (backed up by Disney and director Jon Favreau) coming next October, and the latter (WB and Andy Serkis) set to launch next next October.
Prepare yourself for at least a solid year of back and forth Three Stooges eye-gouging between the two.
Today is the first meeting of finger and soft, unguarded eyeball. The Hollywood Reporter has the first piece of casting for Serkis’ Jungle Book: Origins, and it happens to be really, really stellar casting: Benedict Cumberbatch will play the skulking, boy-hungry tiger Shere Khan. Picture in your mind’s eye, a staggeringly lifelike digital tiger, a la Life of Pi. Except when he opens that fanged maw, a regal Smaug smoothness pours out (probably not as deep in tone as Smaug’s was, but you never know). As he pads about, the slinky English lilt in his voice barely disguises how much he would enjoy disemboweling and consuming us all.
Now, for giggles’ sake, imagine Cumberbatch pouncing about a motion capture studio on all fours and making tiger growls in a pair of sweatpants, because he totally did that exact same thing while playing Smaug.
There’s no doubt that this is top-notch, A-plus, tigertastic casting. The only issue is that it’s the exact same casting that Disney and Favreau already nailed a few months earlier, locking down Idris Elba as their own predatory jungle cat. Elba: also suave. Also British. Also with a layer of power and menace lingering just beneath his suave Britishness.
Competing with Disney in the Jungle Book casting arena is not a game WB wants to play. They have a Bill Murray Baloo, a Scarlett Johansson Kaa, a Christopher Walken King Louie (see the full cast and gasp audibly at how Disney nailed every single choice). Serkis and his WB backers need to take their game in a different direction, because the popular image of The Jungle Book – the one made famous by Disney – has been locked down. By Disney. And according to what little we know about The Jungle Book: Origins (boy, that title’s generic, was Age of Bagheera already taken?), it’ll be carving out a niche away from the House of Mouse.
Serkis will be hewing closer to Kipling’s original novel, which has a dark and brooding vibe that the Disney version wisely did away with (not pictured in Disney’s The Jungle Book: Mowgli luring Shere Khan into a buffalo stampede, then stripping the skin from his crushed carcass as a trophy). That Jungle Book: Origins might include that extremely gross moment is a step in the right direction, but it might behoove Serkis and the folks at Warner to play things a little faster and a little looser with the casting. Try out some non-traditional choices: Jim Carrey as Mowgli. Samuel L. Jackson as Kaa. Maybe not that non-traditional. We’re content to sit and wait, until WB fires off the next eye-gouge in Disney’s direction.