The Jungle Book 2

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Say what you will about the Disney company — that they have no respect for their own masterpieces, that they’ll do anything for a buck, that they make Walt’s corpse spin in its grave on almost a weekly basis — but one thing’s for sure: They know a good thing when they see it.

Last year’s “Peter Pan” sequel, “Return to Never Land,” was an uninspired dud that was originally scheduled to go straight to video. But it occurred to someone that if it were released in theaters and THEN on video, it would make twice as much money. After all, since when is already having seen a film a reason not to buy the video, especially when children are involved?

So “Return to Never Land” — which cost $20 million to make — grossed $48 million in theaters and more millions on video and DVD (Disney won’t release specific figures), despite being an inferior product unworthy of the Disney name.

This year’s pillaging of past glory, “The Jungle Book 2,” also started life as a direct-to-video project. But anyone who can perform simple arithmetic can see the financial advantage to following the “Never Land” strategy.

And so “JB2” hits the big screen, picking up the story of the original Rudyard Kipling-based animated film right where it left off. Mowgli (voice of Haley Joel Osment) is living with a family that adopted him after he found his way out of the jungle, but now he has longings to return to his life of bare necessities. The foster folks insist the jungle is dangerous for a human, and the evil tiger Shere Khan (Tony Jay) is indeed still after Mowgli, and yet he insists on returning.

When he does, his adopted sister and brother follow him, and soon there’s peril for everyone!

The film runs 72 minutes and is credited to six writers, which is an average of 12 minutes per writer. Take out the eight minutes filled with new songs by Lorraine Feather and Paul Grabowsky, and another eight minutes for the time spent singing the first film’s “Bare Necessities” over and over again, and you’re down to 56 minutes, or 9:20 per writer. This was not a work-intensive project is my point.

Unlike most sequels, the story for this one is logical. It stands to reason that, after being raised in the wild, Mowgli would miss the jungle when he became civilized. Unfortunately, nothing is done with this premise. “Jungle Book 2” has the exact same message, point and theme as its predecessor, and it goes about expressing it in an extremely flat, indistinguished manner. It’s approximately the same feeling as watching the first film, except you’re half-asleep while you’re watching it.

John Goodman breathes as much energy as he can into the character of Baloo the bear, and Haley Joel Osment is fine as Mowgli, though you have to wonder how Disney went about purchasing the boy. (He voiced a character in last year’s “Country Bears,” too, and “The Sixth Sense” was a Disney-owned Buena Vista release. Is Osment the new Kevin Corcoran?)

The new songs, especially “Jungle Rhythm,” are catchy, but the barely-above-TV-quality animation can’t keep up with it. You’ve got fast tempos and lively lyrics being matched with static shots of characters who don’t seem very enthused about what they’re singing.

It’s all well and good, and it’s not very long, and young kids will enjoy it. But you should skip the theatrical release and rent it — don’t buy it — when it arrives on video, where it should have gone in the first place.

C (1 hr., 12 min.; G.)

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