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"The Jungle Book 2": Bungle in the Jungle

Normally, I try to let the bad movies—even the bad sequels to beloved classics—roll off my back. After all, what with Sturgeon’s Law and all (“Ninety percent of everything is crud”) it’s rarely any use getting worked up. And you have to be a little forgiving: animators and directors and writers have mortgages and tuitions, after all; corporations have stockholders. And maybe Hollywood itself wouldn’t survive if it couldn’t blow a lot of “fertilizer” around; even the world’s jungles and forests depend in part on the bird crap that rains from their branches and onto their roots.

But sometimes I find my sunny and tolerant disposition tested past the limit. By movies like The Jungle Book 2, for instance.

There is no excuse for this film—no excuse for its making and no excuse for its recent re-release as a “special edition.” On the contrary, this is the kind of movie that is actively culpable: it’s the kind of movie that subtracts from the goodness of the world, the kind of movie that makes you hate, just a little bit more, any world that contains it. Every movie deserves a little critical scrutiny, perhaps, but this one should be brought up on charges of crimes against humanity.

This desperately craven exercise in cynicism—this annihilation of seventy-two minutes of the viewer’s life—apparently takes place a few days after the conclusion of the original Disney feature. Mowgli, who is understandably a little homesick for the jungle and also smarting under a little light punishment—his adoptive father sends him to his room without supper, if you can believe it—is pulled back into the jungle by Baloo; this happens when the latter, who is missing “Little Britches,” secretly sneaks into the village to find and play with him. I would describe the story that follows if there were one, but there isn’t, and unlike the DVD’s makers I prefer not to waste the readers’ time with a lot of piffle-diffle.

Of course, the original film (which I reviewed here, for what it’s worth) was a lot of fluff too. But it was superior and well-crafted fluff, being basically an excuse for a series of spectacular set pieces organized around such eccentric and charismatic performers as Phil Harris, Louis Prima, Sterling Holloway, George Sanders, and (not least) the great Disney animators themselves. Well, all those people are now dead, and the writers and animators and performers called in for this sequel are either uninterested or unable to even suggest the magic of the originals.

For those who can stomach autopsies, the film has its uses. The diminution of Kaa and Shere Khan, in particular, are case studies in the difference between inspiration and talent on the one hand, and outright hackery on the other. Jim Cummings does quite well at imitating Sterling Holloway’s voice and manner, but he seems unmoved by the flat dialogue, so that the seductively sibilant serpent just becomes a prop in some very tame slapstick. But it’s in the animation that Kaa really suffers. The original delighted in Kaa’s nearly occult control over his own coils—the magic show Kaa put on with the hypnotized Mowgli is one of the highlights in the entire Disney canon—and its animators delighted in carefully illustrating and characterizing his moves. The sequel just has him lurching spasmodically about.

Shere Khan, meanwhile, has just become a nebulous and not very credible threat. The 1966 film, astonishingly, kept him off screen until near the end, so that George Sanders’ aristocratic thuggery could unfold to masterful effect. By the time he appeared, and carefully flashed his various facets, the tiger had become the jungle personified: as hypnotic as Kaa, as charming as Baloo, as cultured as Bagheera, as powerful as Hathi, and as implacable and all-consuming as the great trees and waters of the forest itself. He, not Mowgli’s playmates, was Nature at its most majestic—and most inhuman. One felt he almost loved the man-cub: not as prey, but as the only thing within his ken that might challenge him. In the sequel, though, he is reduced to padding about the jungle and muttering, like a Darth Vader gone to seed, about “humiliation.” The late Tony Jay, who is otherwise a fine choice to take up the part, lacks Sanders’ aristocratic finesse, but, like Cummings, is mostly handicapped by a script that doesn’t understand the character, and undermined by animation that cannot express his personality.

When The Jungle Book 2 isn’t pissing all over the memory of its progenitor, it is as thin and tasteless as cheap cardboard. The animals in the original film were, at least, Vegas and Hollywood exotics; the sequel gives us a village that, except for the clothes and buildings, is just another California suburb stuffed with stereotypical dudes and dudettes. Within the first five minutes, when Haley Joel Osment (as Mowgli), Mae Whitman (as Shanti, the girl who lured him into the village) and Connor Funk (as Ranjan, a “little brother” for Mowgli), start talking, you realize you are dealing with amateurish writing that would disgrace a tweener Disney Channel sitcom: “cute” and obvious when trying to be fun, and hectoring and obvious when trying to be serious. The script is so awful it not only has Mowgli’s adoptive father make the wry observation “You can take the boy out of the jungle …”, it actually has his wife finish his cliché (“… but you can’t take the jungle out of the boy”). Nor are matters helped by the “acting,” which is overemphatic in that late-nineties Disney style that would make you slap anyone who tried pulling those faces in real life.

The film is a quasi-musical and includes two new numbers whose melodies are so tuneless and shapeless that you forget them even while listening to them. There is also a reprise of “If I Could Be Like You” and “Bare Necessities.” The latter was probably unavoidable under the circumstances, which all by itself should have convinced the people behind this movie that they were embarking upon a folly, since its reprise accomplishes little but to cruelly expose John Goodman’s limitations as a musical performer.

The Jungle Book 2, which originally came out in 2003, has now been released in a “special edition” that comes with some deleted scenes (two songs, which were apparently never animated, only storyboarded) and a making-of featurette that drips with so much self-congratulation you’ll have to wipe the DVD off with a couple of towels after taking it out of your player. Very little information is revealed, so mostly it is useful only as the excuse for a game of “Yeah, I’d Like to Punch Him.” There are also trailers and some interactive games I couldn’t be bothered to look at. Who buys a thing like this for that?

This is, in short, exactly the kind of “cheapquel” that nearly ruined Disney’s reputation earlier in the decade, and its reappearance now is a reminder of a shameful and degenerate time in the studio’s history. I understand that the Mouse House has to squeeze every available dollar from every available source, but I’d urge animation lovers (and ordinary householders and parents) everywhere to boycott this DVD like that unnatural horror it is. The sooner Disney’s DVD division learns that there is little or no support for its abortions in the marketplace, the better off we will all be.

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