Thank God, I finally get to stop using cumbersome sentence constructions involving the phrase "Walt Disney Television Animation", because unless I am terribly mistaken, The Jungle Book 2 was the first production made by the newly rechristened DisneyToon Studios, a rebranding of the Burbank, Sydney, and Tokyo animation facilities meant, I imagine, to lay a patina of respectability over direct-to-video cash-ins that seemed much less tawdry when the word "television" was taken out of the equation. Befitting this status, The Jungle Book 2 was also a direct-to-video cash-in given a theatrical release, in February of 2003; only the second of these sequels to bear that distinction, after the previous year's Return to Never Land, and the last one to date. If I were inclined towards cruelty and mocking humor, I'd suggest that this shift was the result of an attempt to keep the DisneyToon films (see how much easier it already is to talk about them?) away from the harsh eyes of proper film critics; for The Jungle Book 2, upon its release, was met with the kind of reviews usually reserved for the most deeply unsettling torture porn. Whereas those of us who have spent some time fighting in the DTV trenches might not actually see this as the unspeakable nadir of American animation; as a matter of fact, my first thought about the quality of the film was not, "This is burning my retinas with the unbridled flame of its hate", but, "Wow, this looks pretty darn good. Way better than I'd have ever expected, certainly."

Sometime very soon after the end of the 1967 The Jungle Book (the timeline is left purposefully vague, but it surely can't be more than a month or so), the human boy Mowgli (Haley Joel Osment), raised by wolves and delivered to a man-village by a black panther and a sloth bear, is finding it hard to fit in. And oh! he does fantasise about returning to the jungle, but the love of his kindly adopted father (John Rhys-Davies) and the smoldering eyes of the girl who first seduced him to the village, Shanti (Mae Whitman) hold him in check. Meanwhile, in the jungle, Baloo the bear (John Goodman) is desperately missing his "Little Britches" and so one night he sneaks into the village to meet up with Mowgli; this is, unfortunately for all, the same night that murderous tiger Shere Khan (Tony Jay) also sneaks in, to get his bloody revenge on the boy. In the general mayhem that comes from this, Baloo and Mowgli flee into the jungle, leaving Shanti and Mowgli's adopted little brother Ranjan (Connor Funk) to chase after him. Everybody dicks around in the jungle for about 45 minutes, and then the humans return. I'm sorry, that's a fairly trivial way to sum up the film's plot; but then, the plot is, itself, trivial. I cannot quite make out what the stakes are meant to be: "once again, Shere Khan wants to kill Mowgli", I guess, but since nobody but Shere Khan is aware of this fact, it's hard to say that it qualifies as a conflict. There isn't a conflict, basically, just a scenario, and that's a problem; but not as big a problem as the way that the not-conflict resolves itself, which is to have Mowgli decided a propos of nothing that he's changed his mind and wants to go back. It's quite maddening: the first ten times Mowgli and Balooe discuss Shanti, the boy jokes about how awful she is; the eleventh, he comes rushing to her defense, without any story beat in between to explain why. Maybe it was at that exact instant that he entered puberty.

In an attempt to put some kind of structure on it, The Jungle Book 2 more or less openly takes events and entire scenes from The Jungle Book, and while the specifics are too different for this to be an example of a Disney sequel that simply copies its predecessor across the board, it's something even more depressing: a sequel that wants to copy its predecessor in every detail, and can't get it right. It leaves us with a parade of returning characters who don't get anything to do in a plot that isn't moving forward, but hey! they were there in the first movie, so we want to see them again.

To whatever degree, at least, that they're the same characters. As it happens, none of the principals look or sound all that comfortably like their analogues from the first movie, and not in a "this cheapquel is cheap and poor" way, but in a manner that suggests that the makers of The Jungle Book 2 honestly did not care if their characters resembled the original more than superficially. Hence we get things like Baloo with a noticeably redesigned, pointier snout, and a thicker neck, to say nothing of the fact that in no print of The Jungle Book, no matter how far afield Disney let the color timing get, was he steel blue.

These are not fruitful avenues to chase down, though. As sequels go, it's hardly the worst offender in this case, and the differences are mostly subtle. Until somebody opens their mouth.

And this is a fruitful avenue to chase down, becuase totally independent of the first movie, the voice cast of The Jungle Book 2 is a disaster. Not because the actors themselves are bad, though somebody needed to step in and tell John Goodman to decide how much of a Southern accent to use and stick with it; simply that, almost without exception, they should never have been cast in the first place. John Rhys-Davies has a long history of sounding exactly like a beefy Welshman; it wasn't fair to him or the character to have him playing a native of the Indian subcontinent, especially one whose wife speaks in a perfectly stereotypical Hollywood Indian accent. Nor was Haley Joel Osment going to sound like anything but an American white kid - anyway, Bruce Reitherman in the original already crossed that bridge - but boy, does he sound both white and American, and so does Mae Whitman. Jim Cummings, it is no shock to any of us who know his career, steps in for Sterling Holloway's Kaa the snake, and sounds far too much like his Winnie the Pooh.

The biggest problem, by a landslide, is Goodman, who has to contend with three seperate layers of being ineffective: first, he sounds absolutely nothing like Phil Harris, second, his attempts to sound like a big ol' bear go wildly far astray, and third, he is remarkably incapable of dealing with the jive slang that Baloo is saddled with, the only major character forced to re-create the jazzy '60s atmosphere of the original movie that would have been far better left alone: the movie looks far too much of 2003 for that kind of anachronism to pass by without comment, and yet no comment is given; and so we're stuck with a movie whose attitude is unutterably square and embarrassing, with Goodman forced to say things so dated, doing it so effortfully, that you can almost see the flop sweat in the animation.

Goodman has been good enough in enough animated movies that I simply can't bring myself to blame him: it was the script! the concept! But no, it was Goodman too. Just as much as it was Osment, and everybody else whose voice is such a blithering mismatch for the setting, the tone, and the design of the picture.

The only character, really, where it seems like they were trying at all, is the villainous tiger: Tony Jay sounds nothing like George Sanders, but he makes a hell of a good Shere Khan, smooth and mean and so very smug. And in what is surely not an unrelated development, Shere Khan is the character whose design and animation is the most ambitious and effective in the whole movie. They cared about him, clearly, more than anybody else; or at least they did a much better job with him at every level of storytelling: writing, acting, animating.

I don't want to slight the animation, though. That's certainly happened enough to the poor bastard of a film, and while it's not entirely undeserved - if you walked in actually thinking that this was a Walt Disney Feature Animation project, as several critics at the time seem to have done, then yes, you'd be scandalised beyond all reason too - it still looks pretty sharp, certainly above-average for a 2-D animated movie back when anybody was making those for commercial reasons and not idiosyncratic artistic ones. The colors are bold and appealing, the cel-style animation is mixed well with CGI elements, and it is, generally speaking, a great deal smoother and more physically nuanced than most of what the Australian studio had produced before this point (the superlative Paris studio contributed to this film as well, and maybe that made some of the difference). It's still every inch a kids' movie, but unlike Cinderella II, to name a random example, it's a kids' movie that doesn't look like complete ass.

Well, almost. There is the matter of Ranjan, a squeaky, awful little child, who continues the noble tradition of characters in these DisneyToon pictures that nobody could figure out how to draw properly. He is saddled with a great many expressions in mutually exclusive faces throughout the film, and none of them are in any way pleasant to look at.

But let us not tarry on Ranjan. The point is, The Jungle Book 2 actually looks okay, and that's simply not something I was prepared for.

In all the other ways, though, it's pretty rough going. The story I've largely dealt with; then there's the whole matter of the music, which is incredibly vile: the cacophonous "Jungle Rhythm", a big production number that makes a hilarious cameo when it gets slowed down and Mowgli sings it as a sad ballad; and "W-I-L-D", large, mock-jazzy nonsense whose dance number starts cribbing overtly from "I Just Can't Wait to be King" from The Lion King, and three separate appearances of "The Bare Necessities", because really, what else would a Jungle Book sequel be good for? The second appearance, by the way, includes all of the lyrics from the original, including really specific lines about bees and prickly pears, and the new film obligingly finds ways to incorporate those things visually, even though the song takes place at night, and that sad little bee that zips by just so Goodman can bellow his way through that lyric is the saddest goddamn thing.

I mean, let's not be ridiculous: this isn't a very good children's movie. It's just that it's not a screaming, bloody abortion of a children's movie either, and I'm on record as thinking that the 1967 film wasn't all that great to begin with. So what we have here not something rancid and inappropriate and hateful, but just something that's not a good movie, and probably better left unwatched. Which, for a DisneyToon sequel, is actually a pretty good place to land.