The Jungle Book 2 (2003)

Rated G.

Starring the voices of Haley Joel Osment, John Goodman, Tony Jay, Phil Collins, Jim Cummings.
Directed by Steve Trenbirth.
Written by Karl Geurs.
Based on the characters by Rudyard Kipling.
Produced by Mary Thorne.
Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.
72 minutes.

LVJeff's Rating: 6/10

  
Photo ©Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.

Another Flawed Part 2

It could have been much worse. That's the highest praise I can give The Jungle Book 2. Because I'm a cranky Disney fan who has complained for years about sequels to their animated classics, my statement actually amounts to high praise indeed. As a finished product, The Jungle Book 2 shows little weakness in its competent construction and animation. Rather, its major problem involves how generic the whole thing is.

Anyone who has followed Disney's recent trend of creating direct-to-video continuations of their theatrical animated films should not be surprised by my criticism. These sequels are known for their discernibly sub-par qualities, ranging from bad animation to recycled stories. They strive for mediocrity and occasionally fail badly. Why? Because they've been created mainly as low-cost products to milk a few more dollars out of already established brand names. As long as they contain some harmless stories imbued with little life lessons for the kids, no one gets hurt and artistic originality need not apply.

When Disney decided to expand this idea to theatrical sequels, it became a cause for both alarm and hope. We should be worried that these exercises in banality are now invading our local cinema, where such movies do not belong (although that doesn't stop other sub-par flicks from hitting the theater, so I suppose that concern is relatively minimal). But we can be hopeful because a theater run means Disney won't be able to get away with the inferior work it has displayed in videos such as Cinderella II and The Hunchback of Notre Dame II. A higher standard of quality must be ensured when playing on the big screen; after all, Disney has a reputation to maintain for its theatrical animated releases.

Thus, Return to Never Land, the first sequel resulting from this strategy, was actually a handsome production, though sporting an unsurprisingly kiddie-patronizing plot. The same can be said about The Jungle Book 2. It's a pretty good-looking movie, but it has a story you could come up with in your sleep: Mowgli (voiced here by Haley Joel Osment), now a villager adopted by a family, misses Baloo the bear (now voiced by John Goodman) as well as the jungle life and returns to them. In the meantime, Shere Khan the tiger (Tony Jay) seeks vengeance on Mowgli for his humiliation from the first movie.

The Jungle Book 2 feels similar to Return to Never Land in almost every aspect. Both movies received more attention from the filmmakers to their homage aspects than their plot details. The returning characters are given every chance to display the personalities that enchanted audiences decades ago. If any evidence of the real Disney magic can be found in these productions, it's in the character portrayals. In The Jungle Book 2, the parade of cameos seems gratuitous, but I found it hard not to smile when I heard Jim Cummings do his uncanny Sterling Holloway impersonation when voicing Kaa the snake, and I loved hearing Tony Jay reprise his version of Shere Khan again (he used to voice him in the animated t.v. series Tail Spin). The animators do their part in reproducing details such as Shere Khan's smile and Baloo's wide range of dopey expressions.

Yet, the ode to the past can never feel fully realized when the combination of cranking plot-gears, way-too-eager-to-please musical numbers, and new characters with too-current sensibilities get in the way. Overall, the original spirit of The Jungle Book is compromised. The first movie was very much a product of the laid-back hipster jazz attitude of its time -- I want to use words like "happenin'" or "mod" to describe it. Therein lay its charms. The new movie feels like it's been crammed into Disney's formula box, despite the effort spent in bringing old characters back to life. Mowgli, for instance, seems too consciously aware of what's happening to him and those around him -- traits of a modern Disney protagonist and not of the cipher variety he was before (a "cipher" character being a passive one to whom events happen, as opposed to an active one who makes events happen). Most jarring was the movie's revival of the original's signature song, "The Bare Necessities." The nature of its lyrics suggested an improvisational ease in the first movie, as if Baloo was making it up as he went along, but here the song is repeated word-for-word, dictating the events so the lyrics can match the actions.

So it's still close -- but no cigar. Of course, children and the parents dedicated to pleasing them with an hour-and-a-half's worth of entertainment won't care about the things I've brought up. Disney might not care either -- ultimately, The Jungle Book 2 will make a profit because it's well-made, even if it does fall short as an artistic endeavor. And as long as this keeps working for them, mediocrity will continue to be the highest level of quality any of these movies can achieve.

©Jeffrey Chen, Feb. 8, 2003

This review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews.

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