Benedict Cumberbatch cast as villainous tiger in Warner Bros. 'Jungle Book'

Benedict Cumberbatch will face off against Idris Elba's interpretation of the same character, Shere Khan, in Disney's version of the classic tale.

REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Cast members Andy Serkis (R) and Benedict Cumberbatch pose at a press line for "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" during the 2014 Comic-Con International Convention in San Diego, California July 26, 2014. Serkis will direct "Jungle Book: Origins" and Benedict will play Shere Khan.

Warner Bros. has struck its first blow against Disney in the battle of the "Jungle Books."

Both studios have begun pre-production on parallel film adaptations of Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book." The Warner Bros. version is a little behind. It is scheduled to come out a year after Disney's, which is already almost fully cast and nearly ready to go into production, with an Oct. 9, 2015, release date.

But better late than never, Warner Bros. has now taken out the big guns by casting famed British actor Benedict Cumberbatch as the villainous tiger, Shere Khan.

Over the past few months, the pressure has been on at Warner Bros. to begin casting their film, entitled "Jungle Book: Origins," with talented actors that can hold their own against Disney's all-star lineup in their "The Jungle Book."

The Disney version promises a voice cast that includes Scarlett Johanssen, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong'o, Ben Kingsley, and Giancarlo Esposito (Gus from "Breaking Bad"). Cumberbatch's counterpart playing the Disney version of Shere Khan is Idris Elba.

Cumberbatch is known primarily for his role as Sherlock Holmes in BBC's "Sherlock," the immensely successful modern-day retelling of the classic detective stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, although he has won popular and critical acclaim in a large number of roles as well. The decision of Warner Bros. to cast such a big-name actor in the role would appear to be a smart move, at least from a competitive standpoint. 

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the Warner Bros. version, titled "Jungle Book: Origins," will be written by the relatively unknown screenwriter Callie Kloves. Her father, Steve Kloves, was the screenwriter for all but one of the "Harry Potter" films. He will also produce "Jungle Book: Origins."

Andy Serkis will direct the Warner Bros. film, which promises to be a darker take on the jungle adventures, based on Rudyard Kipling's original short story collection from 1897. The Disney version, by contrast, which will be a family-friendly live action/CGI update of the lighthearted 1967 animated musical, though it's unknown whether or not singing will be involved in the new film. Kipling's original stories are in the public domain, so both studios are free to to use as much of the material as they choose. The Warner Bros. version, however, is not allowed to draw any material from the 1967 film, which was produced by Disney.

Even though Serkis has never directed a feature-length movie, his experience as second unit director in Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" trilogy has won him high praise, particularly for the barrel escape scene in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," according to the Guardian. Serkis is also known as a motion capture specialist in front of the camera as Gollum in "Lord of the Rings" and Caesar in the recent "Planet of the Apes" films. His expertise in motion capture technology will likely come in handy "Jungle Book: Origins," which will be filled with talking computer-generated animals interacting with the real-life actor playing Mowgli, an orphan boy who is raised by wolves, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

While it hasn't been confirmed whether that the animals in "Jungle Book: Origins" will be portrayed via motion capture or not, it is probable that Serkis will make use of his extensive experience with the technology to bring the story to life, especially since Cumberbatch has experience in that field as well. According to Mashable, Cumberbatch has already worked with Andy Serkis on "The Hobbit," where the British actor played the evil dragon, Smaug, using motion capture techniques.

Cumberbatch's experience with motion capture will balance well with his celebrity as an actor. Cumberbatch is also known for his enormous Internet fanbase that has helped him remain in the public eye. Recently, 100,000 tickets – being offered a year in advance of a Cumberbatch-led production of "Hamlet" – sold out in minutes, perhaps setting a record for the fastest-selling ticket in London theater history, according to the London Evening Standard. Warner Bros. clearly hopes to capitalize on the high demand for Cumberbatch in "Jungle Book: Origins."

Warner Bros. will release "Jungle Book: Origins" October 21, 2016.

Weston Williams is a Monitor contributor.

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