It has been more than 35 years since Disney released "The Jungle Book." The 78-minute children's classic, the last animated feature Walt Disney personally supervised, featured the now-familiar voices of Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima, George Sanders, Sterling Holloway, J. Pat O'Malley and Bruce Reitherman, with songs by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman as well as Terry Gilkyson's Oscar-nominated tune, "Bare Necessities."
Based on Rudyard Kipling's classic tale, the film was reissued in 1978, 1984 and 1990, grossing $142 million domestically for all releases. It first came out on video in 1991.
Now Disney is about to test how big a market there is for a new story line and new songs featuring many of the same characters. "The Jungle Book 2," which makes its debut Friday, stars John Goodman as the voice of Baloo the bear and Academy Award-nominee Haley Joel Osment as the man-cub, Mowgli.
The film, directed by Steve Trenbirth and produced by Mary Thorne and Chris Chase, with a screenplay by Karl Geurs, begins shortly after the original left off, with Mowgli torn between two worlds: living in the village among humans, yet yearning to return to the jungle to see his buddy, Baloo.
Over the years, using its TV animation unit, Disney has successfully turned a number of hit animated films into popular direct-to-video sequels. "Aladdin," for example, was followed by the videos "The Return of Jafar" and "Aladdin and the King of Thieves," while "The Lion King" spawned the direct-to-video sequel, "The Lion King II: Simba's Pride."
But in the case of "The Jungle Book 2," the studio believes the film's modern animation, coupled with a jazzy score and the new story line, make releasing the film into theaters a no-brainer.
The strategy is not without precedent. The company's previous attempt to conjure a sequel out of a classic animated movie was "Return to Neverland," which was released last year, 49 years after "Peter Pan" first came out. "The Tigger Movie," Disney's third Winnie the Pooh feature film, was the TV animation division's first theatrical test. Those films, as well as "The Jungle Book 2," were produced at a fraction of the cost of feature animation, and they have been reliable home-video cash cows (along with their direct-to-video siblings) and modest theatrical successes as well.
"It will be interesting to see how well this movie does," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co. "If it does well, will they do theatrical sequels of classics like 'Bambi?' "
We wouldn't be surprised.
-- Robert W. Welkos