This is just the latest in a series of lower-echelon Disney animated efforts–following in the wake of “The Tigger Movie” (2000) and “Return to Never Land” (2002)–to resurrect an old company standard for a quick theatrical run before taking its place on video and DVD shelves, where it obviously belongs. Perhaps younger tykes who can be enchanted for countless hours by repeated viewings of the original 1967 animated version of “The Jungle Book”–the last such feature overseen by Walt himself (he died in 1966)–will be similarly mesmerized by this much-delayed sequel. Late boomers who recall the old flick fondly may also find it a comfortable fit. But everyone else is likely to consider it rather a bore. It’s handsomely made, harmless and inoffensive, to be sure, but also overly familiar, and, though little more than an hour long, very slow going.
The best thing about “The Jungle Book 2” is the old tune, “The Bare Necessities,” that everyone recalls from the 1967 picture. It’s nice to hear it again, but when it reappears for a reprise, you begin to wonder whether the filmmakers have any other arrows in their quiver. (Certainly the news songs–all instantly forgettable–suggest not.) By the time it shows up for a third hearing, like a leitmotif in a Wagnerian opera, the paucity of inspiration has become cruelly apparent. And it’s not merely in the musical department that the picture feels threadbare. The script, credited to Karl Geurs, is awfully thin as well. The narrative, which takes up where the original left off, has Mowgli living in a village with a nice family, including his girlfriend Shanti and her high-spirited kid brother Ranjan. But he still feels the lure of the jungle beyond the walls–a pull his foster-parents fear, especially when it threatens to embroil the other village children, too. At the same time, Mowgli’s old pal Baloo the Bear wants his man-cub back, and the villainous tiger Shere Khan wants him, too–to take vengeance on. Soon Mowgli is back frolicking with Baloo in the wild; Shanti and Ranjan follow to bring him back, and the villagers pour into the forest to search for all three. A big action finale features the obligatory defeat of Shere Khan at the old temple, but the larger outcome is Mowgli’s realization of where he belongs, Baloo’s acceptance of that, and a happy union of the denizens of wilderness and civilization. In short, it’s one big happy family at the close–on the screen, at least, if not in the audience.
Happily, the artwork is better than the script–smooth and colorful, even if it breaks no new ground. The vocal talent is solid, too. As Mowgli, Haley Joel Osment seems happier than he sounded in the dreadful “Country Bears,” and he proves he can carry a tune pretty well, too. John Goodman does a fine time standing in for the late Phil Harris as Baloo, while Jim Cummings mimics Sterling Holloway’s fuzzy tones splendidly (as he did as Pooh in “Tigger”) playing Kaa the Snake (he also does the elephant Hathi and a talkative monkey nicely). Tony Jay, replacing the late George Sanders as Shere Khan, makes the tiger sound like Scar the Lion’s twin. Phil Collins contributes a loud-mouthed buzzard called Lucky, and John Rhys-Davies– now so familiar from “The Lord of the Rings”–an avuncular human father for Mowgli.
But while the efforts of the artists and actors aren’t exactly negligible, the material they have to work with resolutely lacks enchantment. The original “Jungle Book” was no classic to begin with, but this followup is more squeaky echo than rambunctious roar.