Disney’s 1967 The Jungle Book was about a young orphan named Mowgli raised in the jungle who wants to go on living there, a responsible panther named Bagheera who wants to bring Mowgli to live among his own kind at the man-village, an avuncular bear named Baloo who wants Mowgli to stay with him, a sophisticated tiger named Shere Khan who wants to eat the little man-cub, and a python named Kaa who wants to beat Shere Khan to it.
And so is this sequel.
The voices are different, but the story is the same. Once again Bagheera (Bob Joles) and Baloo (John Goodman) argue about whether the man-cub (Haley Joel Osment) belongs at the man-village or in the jungle with his papa-bear. Once again Shere Khan (Tony Jay) squeezes Kaa (Jim Cummings) for information on the whereabouts of the little lost lamb while Kaa makes another abortive attempt to enthrall the redoubtable tiger.
Once again Colonel Hathi (Cummings again) and his elephantine Dawn Patrol stamp and crush through the underbrush in a military style, and the four mop-headed British buzzards come around to pluck you up when you are down. And once again — and again, and again — Baloo and Mowgli sing about the Bare Necessities, those simple bare necessities, forget about your worries and your strife.
There are a few minor casting adjustments. The four buzzards now have a fifth, Lucky (Phil Collins), who’s wackier and less prudent than the original four. That king of the swingers, the jungle VIP himself, King Louie the orangutan, is splitsville (his beloved song "I Wanna Be Like You" gets a cover version over the end credits, a sort of ska-hardcore rendition by California band Smash Mouth).
Most significantly, that young village beauty who lured Mowgli out of the jungle with her batting eyes now has a name, Chanti (Mae Whitman), not to mention a boisterous baby brother named Ramjan (Connor Funk) and warm, loving parents. Like other lightweight Disney sequels such as Return to Never Land and Lady & the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure, Jungle Book 2 is family-friendly, with none of the negative parental stereotypes or politically correct attitudes that marred so many Disney cartoons in the ’90s.
Yet those sequels at least had new stories to tell, however slight, about their next-generation heroes, Wendy’s whimsy-deprived daughter Jane and Lady and Tramp’s scrappy pup Scamp. Jungle Book 2 is content to retell the same story about the same characters, throwing in a few new songs no one will remember the next day and erasing the poignancy of the original ending by trying to have its cake and eat it too.
There are a few nice touches. I liked the shadow-puppet prologue recapping the first film, and the way Mowgli, not yet fully adjusted to life in the man-village, still wears a loincloth, sleeps draped over a rafter like a substitute tree branch, and calls his foster father "Sir." Visually, brief sequences with Bagheera picking his way through a dense tangle of elephant parts and swimming under a water-treading Colonel Hathi show a little flair.
Mostly, though, the visuals are competent but no more, and there’s no attempt to recapture the most distinctive visual touches of the original, such as the naturalistic movements of Mowgli and Bagheera.
The voicework is a mixed bag. Cummings, the new voice of Pooh, extends his creditable Sterling Holloway impression to Kaa, while Tony Jay, whom IMDb.com says is "sometimes credited as George Sanders," competently stands in for the original George Sanders as Shere Khan. Joles as Bagheera sounds enough like Sebastian Cabot to get by. Osment doesn’t sound a lot like Bruce Reitherman’s Mowgli, but he gets the inflection and tone right.
Most glaringly miscast is Goodman as Baloo, who doesn’t even come close to the distinctive growly drawl that Phil Harris brought to a number of Disney characters of that period. My kids noticed long ago that the original Baloo sounded just like Thomas O’Malley from The Aristocats and Little John from Robin Hood; now he sounds just like Sulley from Monsters, Inc., which is not the same thing at all. (Perhaps it’s just as well that they didn’t even try to replace the inimitable Louis Prima as King Louie.)
Character-wise, fierce little Ranjan makes the best impression, while his older sister Chanti, alas, has lost the exotic air of mystery and self-possession that pervaded her cameo at the end of the original film, and makes a rather uninspired Disney heroine. She doesn’t reprise her melodic serenade "My Own Home," and doesn’t seem the type to sing it anyway. This Chanti can’t even manage the stepping-stones across the river without looking awkward and clumsy, and has to be saved from Kaa by her kid brother.
Mowgli himself doesn’t seem to know what he wants out of life any more. When he’s in the village he pines for the jungle, but once he gets to the jungle it’s not long before he’s pining for the village. There’s nothing wrong with internal conflict, of course; still, when Mowgli first orders Baloo to scare Shanti away, and then is upset when he actually does so, it’s easy to sympathize with Baloo’s frustration.
The climax in the original film had something of the feel of a rite of passage, with Mowgli taking his birthright as a man by using fire against Shere Khan. There’s nothing so significant about the climactic showdown this time around, which bizarrely sidelines Bagheera, leaving Baloo, Mowgli, and Shanti to take on the tiger alone. In another inexplicable touch, the setting for the showdown includes a river of free-flowing lava, but the lava never actually comes into the story.
At a time when a movie as dicey as Kangaroo Jack can be fobbed off as family fare, there’s something to be said for a harmless flick that will entertain kids and won’t offend parents. Whether it’s worth dropping thirty or forty bucks at the multiplex, or even half that amount for the DVD, is another question.
As interpreted by Disney and director Wolfgang Reitherman, The Jungle Book is essentially a coming-of-age parable about carefree childhood and adult responsibility, embodied respectively by Mowgli’s two mentors, Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther (Sebastian Cabot).
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.