LOS ANGELES, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- Walt Disney lost faith in sequels after the failure of his 1934 follow-up to "The Three Little Pigs." He concluded, "You can't top pigs with pigs." So, when he started making long animated features, he never stooped to doing a sequel.
Heretically, if understandably, Michael Eisner insists upon recycling the Disney Company's incomparable properties. For a decade, his lesser minions have been churning out highly profitable straight-to-video quickie sequels to Disney's animated classics.
These make attractive presents for grandparents to buy. As brand extensions to beloved titles like "Cinderella" and "Lady and the Tramp," they'll initially excite little ones who adore the originals. Even better, grandparents can just wrap them up and send them off, and thus not have to watch this uninspired fodder themselves, unlike the long-suffering parents.
What it is about the great Disney features that makes them so hopeless to sequelize? ("Toy Story 2" is very much the exception that proves the rule.) Having watched hundreds of hours of Disney videos with my sons, I've given this question perhaps more thought than I would have wished.
Last year, Disney put their "Peter Pan" follow-up "Return to Neverland" in the theatres, where it pulled in a healthy $48 million from parents looking for a moderately priced outing with their kids. So, opening widely on Friday is "Jungle Book 2," the sequel to the 1967 version of Rudyard Kipling's tale of a boy raised by beasts in the Indian jungle.
Walt died while the original was being made, so it isn't up to his all-time best. (For that distinction, I'd pick "Lady and the Tramp" as the most perfect blending of visuals and musical score). Still, even second tier classic Disney is awfully good.
"Jungle Book's" famous ending sabotages the possibility of a strong sequel: the adolescent Mowgli sees his first human girl and -- forsaking his jungle hepster pal Baloo the Bear -- follows her and his new hormones into the aptly-named Man Village.
For years, that didn't seem like a wise career move for Mowgli. Because Baloo is a bachelor (as have been almost all of Disney's comic relief characters, from the Seven Dwarfs on down), the Disney Company was free in the 1980s to transplant the footloose fellow into a popular TV cartoon series called "Talespin," in which Baloo became -- why not? -- a pilot in the Caribbean.
Poor Mowgli, though, was still chained down in the Man Village by wife, kids, job, and mortgage, wondering why his agent wouldn't return his calls.
In fact, almost all of Disney's long-form animated features end the same way, with the childish protagonist growing into sexual maturity and (presumably) living happily ever after.
In contrast, both comic relief and short-form cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (or Wile E. Coyote or Popeye, for that matter) have no biological clocks ticking. They don't wise up, don't have children of their own (but do have lots of nephews), don't even learn to think twice before strapping on the latest rocket-powered contraption from Acme Corp.
Drop a refrigerator on a toon's head and he'll just shake it off. He is immortal, immutable, and, typically, infertile. He never marries his girlfriend because Olive Oyl can be Extra Virgin only once.
("Toy Story 2" works because the original isn't about a growing child. It's a buddy movie about the rivalry between Woody and Buzz Lightyear, two comic bachelors.)
"Jungle Book 2" starts up a few months after the first film came to such a definitive conclusion. The screenwriters send Mowgli (voiced by Haley Joel Osment of "The Sixth Sense") back into the jungle to hang out with Baloo. But since we already know that he permanently chose the Man Village, this little feral vacation generates zero emotional tension or involvement.
My 10-year-old son (a big fan of Disney's recent ten-year-old boy-oriented flops "Atlantis" and "Treasure Planet") thought "Jungle Book 2" is a snooze. I'd say don't bother taking anyone over eight. And there didn't seem to be much laughter in the theatre from any age group.
What's most striking is that the filmmakers don't even try to come up with new ideas. They are content to reproduce the charms of the 1967 movie as exactly as they can. John Goodman is a suitable replacement for bandleader Phil Harris as the swinging Baloo. Voice-over maven Tony Jay nails George Sanders' icy Oxbridge accent in the role of the dread tiger Sher Khan.
The producers wisely include several jazzy tunes from the original. "Jungle Book 2" is a weak retread, but at least I left the theatre humming "Look for the bare necessities." Walking out with a catchy melody in your head is a luxury that the musical "Chicago," despite its 13 Oscar nominations, couldn't seem to deliver.