There's nothing like the classics, and nobody knows how to pimp them better than Disney. Last year, the company experimented by putting its Peter Pan sequel, Return to Neverland (planned for video) into theaters first and made a bundle. Presumably this was the stimulus to upgrade The Jungle Book 2 to a theatrical release. It's a perfectly sound idea. The video productions were never slapdash to start with, even if the scripts rarely matched those of the originals. And so it is with The Jungle Book 2: well-animated, well-acted, with some good new songs, but not really up to the level of the 1967 original (the last animated feature supervised by Walt Disney and never regarded as one of his best).
In this entry, the "man cub" Mowgli (voiced by Haley Joel Osment) has forsaken the wild to live in a village, with the town leader (John Rhys-Davies) as a surrogate parent. Of course, he still misses his old buds in the jungle, particularly the bear Baloo (John Goodman, as the obvious replacement for the late Phil Harris), despite his burgeoning friendship/flirtation with a girl named Shanti (Mae Whitman). And Baloo, for his part, has practically gone mental for want of his little buddy.
One night after "lights out," Baloo decides to pay a sneak visit to Mowgli at the village. Unfortunately, a similar idea has also occurred to the villainous tiger Shere Khan (Tony Jay), who seeks revenge for the humiliation visited upon him by Mowgli in the last film. One screw-up leads to another, and soon Mowgli and Baloo are fleeing into the jungle, pursued by Shanti; the town leader's toddler son, Ranjan (Connor Funk); and Shere Khan.
Along the way are some brief distractions involving elephants and a snake as well as some vultures (Phil Collins among them), who seem by their accents to have just flown in from Liverpool, Manchester, and the East End. And, boy, are their jokes tired!
Director Steve Trenbirth (The Lion King II: Simba's Pride) and his animators give the production an appropriate visual style, patterned closely on the 1967 film. It's perfectly effective, though only rarely inspired.
There are also some decent new songs by Lorraine Feather and Paul Grabowsky, notably "W-I-L-D" and "Jungle Rhythm," though the film leans heavily on reprises of Terry Gilkyson's "Bare Necessities" from the 1967 original. There's also a very amusing Smash Mouth cover of Richard and Robert Sherman's "I Wanna Be Like You" over the first part of the closing credits.
Speaking of the closing credits, unless I blinked, there was apparently no room in the seven minutes of the final crawl for even a mention of Rudyard Kipling, without whose original book the Disney organization would now be a great deal poorer. Whether this omission is an insult or a blessing I leave to fans of the author.